FIFM interview: Alaa Eddine Aljem (The Unknown Saint)

Six months ago Alaa Eddine Aljem’s The Unknown Saint started its life on the festival circuit in the most prestigious place possible: Cannes. After world premiering in the Semaine de la Critique, it has since done festivals like Busan and London. And now it’s coming home. After screening in competition at his ‘home’ festival of Marrakech, the young Moroccan director spoke to Cédric Succivalli about the added anxiety screening his film for a home crowd brought, about the constant comparisons to Aki Kaurismäki, about how the score to his film came to be, and about how to build a profitable mausoleum.

CS: I was sadly not able to see your film in Cannes, so I was happy to discover it here. You managed to mix two genres that are difficult to blend, which is the burlesque and absurdist on the one hand and the social commentary on the other, and all of that in a debut. I was also moved by your presentation yesterday, because you said that you and the film have been to Cannes and many other festivals, but you didn’t feel as much anxiety as here because Marrakech is the city where you did your film studies. How was the reaction for you?

AEA: This is indeed not my hometown, but it is my adopted town. I studied here, I have lived here since I was 17. It’s here that I discovered cinema. I came to Marrakech Film Festival, and it was the first festival I ever went to. I was very impressed with all the protocol and security measures, and at that age it makes an impression. Thanks to the festival I could see the masterclass of Elia Suleiman, and one of Martin Scorsese, and other masterclasses too. These were eye-opening for me. Not all directors were known to me, at least not at the time, not like Scorsese, so I discovered them and sought out their films. So somehow this festival also helped me develop my cinephilia. Yesterday I was so calm, but when I went to the seating box before the presentation I started to feel a bit anxious. I told my wife and producer Francesca, “I don’t know why, but this time I really feel a bit anxious.” She said it was normal and that it would go away, so I managed to calm myself down. Then when they did the presentation, the girl that did the translations improvised at the end, something that was not translated into French, when she said she was emotional because we were in school together. When she said that, everything came back. Then when I stood up to go on stage, two rows behind me I saw my old cinema school director, all my old teachers, students from the school. I knew everyone. So when people asked me why I was so anxious, I said, “In Cannes I didn’t know anyone, so if they didn’t like it, whatever. But here it’s like presenting your movie to your family.

CS: I don’t like to always find references in films, but I thought about Suleiman and Kaurismäki watching your film, both directors I look up to and admire. In the absurdist way you tackle your narrative I found some similarities to them. Are you inspired by them?

AEA: I love their cinema. I also love Jacques Tati, I love Buster Keaton movies. During the development stage I was always asked what my references were, and I never could come up with one reference. I said, “I don’t know, I like Buster Keaton, I like Jacques Tati, Suleiman, Kaurismäki, the Coen brothers. I like Scandinavian humor, but I also like Iranian cinema.” Kiarostami, the simplicty and aesthetics of his cinema. When the movie was done, the first press responses we received were all comparing it to Kaurismäki, Kaurismäki, Kaurismäki. The English and American press compared it to the Coen brothers, they even called it Fargo in the Desert. The distributor actually used that for the marketing. They also talked a lot about how much it was like a Western. Which was apt in a way, because we worked on Western music.

CS: Speaking of the music, can you elaborate a bit on your work with two Amines, the score by Amine Bouhafa and the cinematography by Amine Messadi? These are key elements in the success of the film.

AEA: I wasn’t planning to have music in the film, the first cut was actually without music. When I had just finished the shoot I came here to the festival, and I was invited to a workshop lunch. So I sat there, and some guy came to sit next to me. We started talking, he told me he was a composer, and then he asked, “Do you want to put any music in your movies?” I told him no. We continued our conversation, and he said that if one day I would come to Paris, we should meet. We kept in touch, and after the editing I sent the penultimate cut to all our partners in the movie. To Match Factory, to our French distributor, to my French producer, and to a few close friends from whom I know I will get sincere feedback. Four or five people sent us the same feedback: it’s great, but it needs some music. My wife said the same. Michael Weber, the head of Match Factory, said, “Without music, it’s a great movie that will go to festivals. With music, it’s Aki Kaurismäki, but in your own way.” So there was Kaurismäki again! Anyway, I agreed to use music, but I reserved the right to drop it if I didn’t feel it was good for the movie. So who did I call? Amine! I sent him a link at ten in the morning, and not even two hours later he called me. He said he liked it and found it very different, and he felt that he could get some good music under it. He gave me an ultimatum: he was willing to postpone another project, but I had to come to Paris within three days. So I went there and told him, “I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want.” So I gave him a list of what I wanted and didn’t want, mainly what I didn’t want. It became a bit like music from a Western, but with an African touch. Just before he did Timbuktu, so he got a lot of ideas from that.
As for the other Amine…

CS: Sorry to interrupt you, because the cinematography really helps the film. You don’t make it too poetical, you don’t show beautiful desert landscapes or something. You stick to what you have in a way that is really authentic, but it must have been really difficult.

AEA: All my shorts are shot in the same way, always static shots, no camera movement. Always frames, and characters moving from one frame to the other. This was the language I used. In the beginning I told Amine about my references in terms of cinematography. We talked a lot about Ozu, the fact that everything is symmetric and rigid in some way. When we started working we agreed on limiting ourselves to the 35mm and 50mm, so the whole movie is shot with two lenses that are closest to the perception of the human eye. We wanted the camera to be like an observer of this micro-society in the village. We are observing the characters, we keep some distance from them. Somehow it is in harmony with the script, because there is no psychology in it. We didn’t want a camera that was too intimate, too close. You have two choices in cinematography: you choose cinematography where you forget about the camera and you are close to the characters, or you choose a cinematography where you do feel the camera, you feel the staging, where the mise-en-scene tells us something. Humor sometimes comes from the mise-en-scene, and emotions and feelings. We also didn’t want very saturated colors, so we worked on pastels. It was like paintings. It’s all pastels, all desaturated. Colourful, but not too much. We wanted to capture the beauty of the desert, but not get something contemplative.

CS: Let’s talk a bit about the casting. Younes Bouab and Salah Bensalah, the co-leads, have great chemistry between them. One is flamboyant, the other phlegmatic and stoical. Did you have anyone in mind when you were writing, or did you find them through casting?

AEA: All through casting. Some of them are very famous in Morocco, so it was a bit weird, because I called them and told them I was working on my first feature film, and that I thought about them and wanted them to come to the auditions. Then it was, “Who are you again?” (laughs) I didn’t have problems with the cast. We had a coffee, and I explained it was an audition for both of us, and that they had to have faith in my skills and vice versa. I need there to be chemistry. And if it’s not there, that’s also fine, we don’t do it. So we are on the same level. They understood it, and they all wanted to do something different. They never played this kind of character, so it was challenging for them.

CS: The only Moroccan film in Competition last year was Une urgence ordinaire, and there are elements both films have in common: the issue of healthcare, which you do in a much more sarcastic, sardonic way. I was laughing my head off at the running gag that the only medicine you get is paracetamol.

AEA: I’ll tell you why that is. When I was a kid we had this cream, normally an eye cream. But you used it for everything: skin, stomach, back pain. Every Moroccan knows this cream! It’s a miracle cream. I don’t know if they still sell it. The crazy thing is that everyone will swear to you that it works. It’s your whole pharmacy in one cream. So that’s where that joke comes from. Morocco has now started manufacturing generic paracetamol, and my sister, who is a doctor, said that she was working in rural areas and they would get sent boxes and boxes of this paracetamol. And it’s all they have.

CS: These comedic elements give an incredible rhythm to the film. There is also the mixing of it with a genre like, as you say, Western. It’s the story of a thief who buries a lot of money before he goes to prison, only to find a mausoleum built on top of it when he gets out. Where did you shoot those scenes, and how was it to shoot in the middle of the desert?

AEA: It was shot in a small desert not far from here. I wanted a desert with rocks, not with sand, so not like Merzouga. There is something raw in that, not something dreamy like in a traditional desert, something you would see in Lawrence of Arabia. We didn’t have the means in terms of equipment or lighting to shoot beautiful pictures like that anyway. The shoot was complicated because they are starting to build in that desert. I shot there five times. The first time there was nothing, now there is electricity, water, roads, and five-star hotels who advertise nights in the desert to tourists. So if you turn your camera five centimeters to the right you see German tourists on camels, and turn it five centimeters to the left and you see a motorcross competition or something. We had a lot of obstacles to overcome. I’ll tell you one anecdote that summarizes it all: I asked to have all sets built beforehand. The only set that couldn’t be built beforehand was the mausoleum. We had the hill, the stairs going up, but we needed the mausoleum. The village didn’t want us to build it. So I told them, “It’s fake, it’s cinema. We can tear it down again afterwards.” We built it back here in the city, then took it over there to show it to them. They talked among themselves, then gave us a high price, and we said yes. So we set it up. Then one day I returned with our DOP and we found five big cars full of tourists, and a guide who was telling them this was the mausoleum of the saint that had founded the village! When we finished the shoot, the villagers asked us to leave the mausoleum there because it was generating money for them! We had to remove it, but we showed them how to build one (laughs).