Marrakech Film Festival: Interview with Mohcine Besri (Part 2)

CS: There’s this moment in your film, Urgent, when the young man who attempted to commit suicide says something in the line of: “They won’t let you die in peace…”

MB: He says it to this lady with the scarf. In Islam, suicide is forbidden, you go to hell if you commit suicide. She was like: Did you have an accident? Did you hit a car or something? And he says, no, it’s the opposite! And she’s, like, shocked!

CS: I don’t think she even understands what he means, in fact. Nobody can!

MB: Exactly! So then, he says: It’s an amazing country, when you want to die, they won’t let you. And only then she gets it and realizes that, OMG, he really tried to commit suicide. And then he says, and when you try to survive, look around you! I was thinking exactly about that. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia with the guy who set himself on fire, we’ve had many kinds of similar stories here, but then they come and throw some water on you and won’t let you die (laughs).

CS: Without giving too many spoilers away, let’s say that the film starts and ends on a motorway. It’s another metaphor of human trajectories and life. The film goes full circle. And we get away with a feeling of hope nonetheless. And it is so difficult to achieve that without resorting to corniness or too much sentimentality. It’s one of the many strengths of your film.

MB: You know why it goes this way? Because I have two boys and I realized since I’ve had these boys that if I watch a film where something bad happens with the boys, I feel really bad. I cannot even watch it with them sometimes, you know. So when I wrote the script, I don’t know, because I started working on it back in 2012. I worked on it for two years and then I said to Lamia Chraibi (his producer) in Marrakech, screw that, this is not working, this is not what I want to do. So I stopped it, and then I went back to it and I took away all the main characters. I was not convinced by the first script.

CS: How many drafts did you do?

MB: Oh, I can’t even remember. So many. Too much. But when i finished the script and we had the money from Morocco and Switzerland, I started working on it again from the very beginning! But this time I took a French co-writer, very tough! Because I was afraid, I was going to talk about a kid and I know I have very emotional reactions because of my two sons. So I needed someone to stop me if I was going to go too pathos, too sentimental, I really needed someone to tell me, oh oh oh oh, wait a minute here! Because I was really afraid of myself. So I worked with her and it was nice.

CS: So how did you find her? How was it to work with a co-screenwriter?

MB: Well, we did a sort of screenwriter casting, we searched for some people, we talked a lot. I remember that with my Swiss producer, we went to Paris and we met a lady from Italy, very warm, very Mediterranean, very like me! She was really in love with the script. And the second day we met Cécile (Editor’s note: Cécile Vargaftig, the French co-screenplay writer). She didn’t care that much about the script. She said, yes it is interesting but we have to start again from zero. Then my producer left and she would call me all the time to ask me and to know which one we were going to choose! I eventually told her, you think I’m going to work with the Italian, don’t you? And she said, yes! And I said, no…we are too close. The other one is tougher, it’s all in the mind, nothing in the heart! But for me it’s the right challenge. If I had worked with the Italian lady, we would have gone in the same direction and I didn’t want that. I wanted something like, definitely like Ken Loach does, like Farhadi also, Moretti at times too. But I love it and that’s why it works! That’s why it goes this way, tougher.

But I needed to put some humor even in my previous feature. It was a low-budget film and at one location too. And also it was a kind of metaphor. It’s a theater company, kidnapped by terrorists. They bring them to a place where they are supposed to meet the chief, Amir. But once there they don’t find him, so they start waiting for him. It’s like Waiting for Godot. And all the film is in this house, in the middle of nowhere. So people think I just want to make one-location films, but my third film is a kind of road movie in a way, we can call it this way.

CS: Is it already finished?

MB: Yeah yeah yeah. The world premiere was in Carthage a month ago. It’s also a very low-budget film. So yeah, sometimes when you want to bring society to a place, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me doing psychology with myself! Maybe because I studied physics, and I was a mathematics teacher, so I like that kind of experimental stuff. A one-location set for me is like a laboratory. And then you start looking at how it works. Maybe it comes from this background, I don’t know. I love one-location films actually.

CS: The film went to Busan as well and now it’s in Marrakech. How do you feel about the reactions the film has received so far? It was very warmly received here, I must say!

MB: Yes, yes! And the second day, we had a Q&A after the 10 p.m. screening and I thought nobody would be there. The Q&A started at 11.30 p.m. and it was full! And we talked for more than one hour! And it was so nice to talk to the audience! And you know, before I shot the film the first time in Morocco, my fear was that if I was to show the film in Morocco, how would the healthcare people react to it? And I had a great present after the first screening. Someone came and hugged me and he gave me his card and said, please contact me, I am a doctor, and thank you for making this film. And then yesterday we had a coffee together and we spent one hour talking. And that’s when I discovered he was not a doctor, he was a surgeon! And in my film, that’s the one people can think is the real bad guy! The one who didn’t want to operate on the young boy because he had too much work. So he told me, you know, I would love your film to be shown to doctors and such in this country, to my colleagues, because maybe we just forget what the real situation is. And then he told me these exact words (in French): “I want doctors to watch your film, to realize the consequences of what we do to people because we are too inside of it and we lack the distance, we cannot stand back.” And that was coming from a doctor, wow! So yeah, it was a very emotional moment for me. Very very touching. That guy was ready to face his reality and engage in self-criticism. This is phenomenal! Yeah, I am happy about the audience.

CS: Well, fingers crossed for tonight then! (Editor’s note: This interview took place on the morning of the Closing Ceremony.)

MB: We never know. If it comes, it’s going to be good. I think that just to see that, you know, those names in the jury saw your film is something huge, really. I am trying to learn, I didn’t study cinema, so… You will see after I send you the link, my previous film is totally different from this one. And I think it was a good experience, but now that I look at it I’m like, shit, I am ashamed of myself, what is this? This is not cinema! (laughs) But I am trying to learn, as I told you, you know. I just start from an emotion and I am trying to learn how to keep this emotion by going through a script, I mean, words, and filming and to get it in the end. So I am trying to understand the entire process because it is not that easy to describe feelings in a picture.

CS: Well, you did a great job.

MB: Thank you so much!