Marrakech Film Festival: Interview with Mohcine Besri (Part 1)

Cédric Succivalli sat down a few days ago with Mohcine Besri, the director of Urgent, a brilliant and poignant tragi-comedy about the healthcare system in Morocco, the sole Moroccan competition entry at the 17th Marrakech International Film Festival. They discussed at length the director’s passionate and yet conflicted relationship with his country; the influence of Nanni Moretti; a young man called Ayoub he met one night in Tangiers and to whom the film is dedicated, and much more. This wide-ranging interview will be published in two parts.

CS: First of all, congratulations on your film. I was particularly impressed by the masterful and powerful way you blend humor and dramatic elements. After your first film The Miscreants, that tackled terrorism, you went on to shoot Urgent about the healthcare system crisis in Morocco. What is the backstory there?

MB: As an artist, I don’t really like this word, but as an artist, you’re just mindful of your environment. I haven’t done that much so far, this is only my second film, even though I did a third one that just world premiered in Carthage, but let’s say that until now it has always been a matter of reaction to what is happening around me in the world and in my country especially. In the beginning, I just wanted to talk about our society, with all the problems we have, the good and the bad things. You always start from a feeling, and then you have to translate it into words and then into images. Which is not easy actually, to get back to the initial emotions that you felt. How to talk about a society with issues, then the hospital comes as the better metaphor.

CS: Did you shoot in an actual hospital in Casablanca?

MB: It was not in Casablanca actually. And from the very beginning I had told my producers that I didn’t want to shoot in a real hospital with people inside. Because I can’t see myself asking for silence when people are suffering all around! When we were searching for the place we had some offers from some hospitals to give us a place to shoot. But I said no way, I don’t want to shoot in these conditions. So we spent more than 8 months searching for a hospital! For me it’s like a metaphor, the hospital is like a character. It was very important for me to find the right place.

CS: It is the central character!

MB: Yeah, yeah! So we were very lucky because two months before starting the shoot we found this hospital, and it had been closed for a few years because they had built another one. Then the challenge was to renovate it but not to make it new, to actually make it worse! We had to make it look old and dilapidated. The set designer was really nice, it was a challenge for her. She had to make it look like it had been open for 40 years.

CS: It worked!

MB: Yes! I noticed that it worked because during the shoot some people came and asked to see a doctor and they thought it was really open. We had done a great job indeed!

CS: This is fascinating! And where was this in Morocco?

MB: In El Jadida. In the meantime, I didn’t want to tell a story just about doctors and a little boy. To me this was just the first layer, the film is more than that. That’s why I started with a very surrealist scene just to give the audience a helping hand, so to speak. There are some elements of deep black humor.

CS: This opening sequence is extremely powerful. It reminded me of Elia Suleiman or even Nanni Moretti.

MB: Nanni Moretti and Ken Loach are just my Gods, you know!

CS: You feel that influence but in a way that is very personal. It’s not borrowing, it’s more like reinterpreting. That’s what I really loved!

MB: Thank you! We have a little Arabic story that Faouzi Bensaidi (Editor’s note: one of Morocco’s most critically acclaimed directors) told when he was talking with Scorsese, which is very interesting. He told this story of a man who went to see a great poet and told him, “I would love to be a poet, what do I have to do?” The poet told him to learn a thousand poems. So he did, and when he came back he said, “Now I know them all by heart“, and the poet answered, “Now you have to forget them!” That’s what we do, we watch films and of course we are influenced in some way, but afterwards we have to forget them. The filmmakers that I really love are Nanni Moretti, Ken Loach, and Asghar Farhadi from the beginning, from his first film. So if you look at the film of course you’ll think there is a mix of all these people, but I hope there’s something personal also.

CS: Of course there is. Is it completely coincidental that the lead character’s brother has your name, Mohcine? And he also has this relationship with football. He brings Barça in the hospital somehow, without giving too much away. That’s such a Morettian scene! 

MB: Actually the name is not exactly like mine. It’s a slightly different name in Arabic but it sounds like mine. When I searched for names for my characters, I could spend weeks on that. I don’t know why but I have a certain nervousness when it comes to names and characters, so that’s a good question! I need a name that really tells something. That I can feel for myself actually, almost from the name. The one that is not a coincidence at all is the little boy, Ayoub. Ayoub in Arabic is Job, the Prophet. So just the name of Ayoub means a lot. You know the story of Job, don’t you? That’s what happens to this little boy in a way. That’s why I chose that name, that was the first thing.

And the second thing is that a few years ago when I was starting to work on this film, I was in Tangiers at a festival. I was with my editor, just by chance, and after a party and an after-party, we wanted to have some food at five in the morning, in a very small place close to the hotel. This one guy comes in, a young man in his early twenties, very good looking but very dirty. He was begging for some food, so I told him to sit with us if he wanted to eat. “Just give me some food and I will go“, he said. “No, you sit with us,” I told him, “and we will have dinner“, or lunch or whatever you want to call it at that time of the night. So he sits with us in the end, but the waiter comes and says he cannot stay here. And I tell him, of course he will. The waiter says with the way he looks he will scare people away. We can give him food, but he has to go. And I told him no, I’m paying for his food, so you are going to give him what he asks for. And I start talking to this young man, he was 20 years old, blue eyes. I asked him about his life. He was in Tangiers because he was trying to go to Spain by boat or something. And I asked him why, wasn’t he too young? And he said, I cannot stay here, this country doesn’t love me. I do love it but it’s not reciprocal. So we talk about a lot of things. Actually I had the same feeling when I left Morocco.

CS: You don’t live in Morocco?

MB: No, I live in Switzerland now. I’ve been living there for 24 years now. I left when I was 23. I’ve spent one year more in Switzerland now than in Morocco! So anyway, I felt very close to this young guy. I had the same experience also. That your country doesn’t care about you. That’s the first scene.

CS: I was pretty struck by what you said on stage before the film screened. You mentioned precisely this love-and-hate relationship with your country. And that’s what we feel in the film, as well.

MB: The idea is that I am in love with my country but it is not reciprocal. And that was what this young guy told me also and what I was thinking when I left Morocco. So that’s really the theme of the film. And that’s why at the very beginning of the film when the young man is about to jump off the bridge, the other guy next to him just doesn’t care about him. And at the end of the film he’s on the terrace, he’s going crazy because of what he saw, and the last scene on the bridge is just in his mind. He is just asking, what if I jump and you don’t care, what if all of us jump. Will you just continue not to care? This young man that I met in Tangiers, I asked him, “What is your name? ” And his name was Ayoub.

CS: That gives me goosebumps.

MB: So I am going to put that in the film. That’s why I dedicated the film to Ayoub and to all the others. Before he left I asked him if he knew how to swim? And he said no. He just wanted to flee, to Spain, to wherever. So that was the starting point of the film. I was working on it because I already had this feeling, and then I met this guy and I felt I was not alone.