Cannes 2023 interview: Asmae El Moudir (The Mother of All Lies)

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival Moroccan director Asmae El Moudir presented her debut film The Mother of All Lies to an audience for the first time. A hybrid feature, The Mother of All Lies tells the story of a family, El Moudir’s own family, in a period of great historic turmoil in Morocco, the 1980s during the so-called Years of Lead, a period marked by state violence and repression. By connecting a personal story of her own history, and in particular a part that is missing, with a larger story that affected the whole country, El Moudir creates a powerful and affecting, and very creatively told film. Before she would go on to win the Best Director prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Cédric Succivalli, who was already familiar with the project, spoke with El Moudir about the film, her expectations, and about comparisons drawn between her work and that of another illustrious filmmaker.

Q: I’m happy to see you again after you presented part of the film as a work in progress at the Red Sea Souk, during the Red Sea Film Festival. Already there you could see this could turn into an extraordinary film, and I am blown away by the end result. Considering it is such a personal story, where did you gather all the ideas from that coalesce in such an incredible film?

A: I am super happy to see you again as well. It took me ten years to make this film. Making a film about your family, the people that you usually meet in your kitchen or your living room, I found it very hard to change the way we tell the facts of not only our personal stories, but also the stories of my country. In other words, telling our own stories and then arriving at something bigger. A crescendo of small lies, as we say in our family, those little white lies you tell when you are younger and that eventually grow and grow, until we reach the ‘mother of all lies’ hidden in the time of the Bread Riots. To me it’s about a reconciliation with the past. As a new generation, and I’m speaking about my generation from the ’90s, we have to create our own historical archive, since the true archive was erased in the ’80s. There is no future without the past and without memories. When you have nothing about your past, you create your own ‘database’ of this decade, to take my characters far away from the home where it all happened. It is in a way a beautiful evolution and revolution that my generation is now able to speak about the past without hurting anyone. And then to unveil my film in Cannes with my family present… I was not just trying to show how we invent stories without having info about what transpired in our past. That is why the interaction with my family in the film is so important, to show a mechanism of growing lies within the household, but also within the neighbourhood and in the whole country.

Q: One of the most striking elements is that you use your personal story to touch upon something universal. Talking about a repressed or hidden image of yourself, since you have no pictures of yourself from your youth, but then adding the Bread Riots and the Years of Lead to paint a broader picture of the history of your country. Speaking of ‘pictures’, many people who have seen the film draw comparisons to the recent works of Cambodian director Rithy Panh, who also uses these small figurines ever since The Missing Picture. I personally don’t see it as a reference or even homage, since you simply use the same artistic tools but in a totally different way. He has a large amount of information, you had none. Can you comment on whether or not there was an influence, and how you see the comparison?

A: I love all of his films, especially S21, my personal favourite. And I love The Missing Picture. For me it was not a reference, but he is a big director. Obviously in Cambodia there is a similar situation with a hidden history, which you can already see from his title. The main difference is that I use the miniatures and figurines as a mirror for my characters. I am present, I am part of the film. My eyes are there, my face is there. I wanted to use that mirror for the moments my characters didn’t want to speak. In that case I would use the figurines. We can watch both The Missing Picture and The Mother of All Lies and say these films are telling hard stories to tell. I’m actually very happy when they compare my film to his. I’m a young, emerging filmmaker. This is my first film, even if some people count The Postcard as my first. So for me to be compared to him, someone who I regard as my favourite documentary filmmaker, that makes me happy. And I know that there will be a filmmaker in the future who will do something similar too. That is the magic of cinema. I think Cannes is really smart when it comes to selecting this kind of film, they don’t select just films that entertain. They selected The Missing Picture, and now they selected The Mother of All Lies. To me The Missing Picture was the best film of that year, so I’m pleased if my film is compared to that.

Q: Would you mind elaborating a little bit more about the creative process you went through with your family. Was it painful, was it cathartic, did it bring back difficult memories?

A: It was definitely painful to film my family. This was a very direct process within the family, and there was a lot of crying. But that was not the type of film I wanted to make, I didn’t want the empathy. So there are not a lot of tears in the film. It took me nine years to develop the film, and only one year to shoot. That was a big risk to take, as I could lose some of my family members along that journey, but the risk paid off at the premiere. Thierry Frémaux and Christian Jeune coming to meet my family was the best moment of my life. The pain was certainly there, but for me as a filmmaker it was important to take the facts but change the way to tell them. That is why I took a large amount of time to create my own archive. In Cambodia there was nothing, or for example in Chile there was nothing, and it is exactly the same for Morocco. We are the generation to restore history.

Q: How do you expect your film to be perceived in Morocco. Are you scared about reaction, are you excited?

A: The reaction is already happening. All of the Moroccan press was there, and there was a party in the Moroccan pavilion before the film premiered. I was already welcomed, together with my parents and my family. They understood that the best way to deal with what happened in the past is to dig deep in our own histories. I am telling our personal stories, so if someone takes issue with it that is their problem. I wanted to create a picture because I was missing an image of myself in my own neighbourhood. They understood that the best way to reconcile with the past was to tell our story.

Q: I was more talking along the lines of the storyline of Fatima and of the Bread Riots; could that be uncomfortable for some people in Morocco?

A: Yes, of course. But I think it is part of the reconciliation process. If people discover this, maybe it will give them an idea. There is no more censorship, we don’t have to hide. It happened, we cannot do anything about it now. The worst is already done. We have no intention to hurt anyone, we just want to create cinema and create art. When you fly under the radar of censorship with your art, nobody will talk about it. I love Morocco, I live in Morocco, I can’t imagine myself hiding just because of a film. Our new king has also opened doors in that regard. If I had not felt safe I wouldn’t have put my mother and my grandmother in danger. I didn’t want to use any historical footage, as that would be too direct; I also wanted to protect them from that. But now that the film has been seen, the Moroccan people are proud.

Q: And now your mother is actually here. How did she react? Did she see the film for the first time here?

A: I told Christian Jeune that my grandmother would leave Morocco for the first time in her life, would be in a theater for the first time in her life. And it’s a film about her! So I told my family what the festival always tells its audience: bon courage and bon spectacle à vous!