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Casablanca Calling & issues of cultural and religious access

Casablanca Calling was shown as part of the DOK Leipzig festival on Tuesday afternoon. I acted as moderator at the screening and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk to Hilary, the producer, about some of the issues she encountered when making the film.

Access is something that many documentary film-makers struggle with, but in an Islamic country where women are often unwilling to talk to westerners due to potential repercussions from husbands, fathers and brothers, it is astounding the level of access which Casablanca Calling has attained. Durman told me that they spent days waiting at ministries in Morocco to be granted access to institutions; nonetheless, they were not permitted to film inside mosques, and some of the women they had access to would frequently disappear for extended periods of time if they became in any way unsure if what they were doing was right.

This does not detract from the fact that some of these women are astonishingly forward-thinking. In Western press, Islam often gets a bad reputation, but this film really opens itself to show that Islam can have many different interpretations. What is the role of any religion in our society if not an interpretation? To be applicable in a modern world, any of the religions which have been around for centuries must be open to interpretation, and it is this which brings the Morchidat to their belief that women should not have to get married at age thirteen, nor should they spend their childhoods working on a farm. Rather, although there are boundaries they need to respect in a society where every aspect of life is controlled by religion, they are free to lead their own lives.

It might be argued that the film comes across as being anti-men. As one of the main access barriers, it can indeed be said that many of the men in the film do not come across as being open to women’s freedom. However, there are some very forward-thinking and modern young men portrayed in the film; for example, the boy who stands up and sings a song about immigration, and Karima’s husband, who believes that the work his wife does as one of the Morchidat is incredibly important. It is clear that these women have carved out a role for themselves in Rabat and that their work is valued. Some of the most moving scenes are at the girls’ dormitories, where the students pour their hearts out to Bouchra, never having been able to express their fears and thoughts before – many of which relate to how their fathers and brothers treat them.

Durman told me that she found the women on the farm the most engaging of all. Rashida, who doesn’t know how old she is and has never been to school, is one of the 90% of rural Moroccan women who is illiterate. But she has not simply accepted her position and longs to better herself, whilst adhering to the faith she holds so strongly. Karima says that when she was a child she loved hearing stories about powerful women in Islam and how women were the founders of some of Morocco’s most important cultural, religious and educational institutions. In a country where culture and education are so strongly bound with Islam, how has the role of women become so diminished? How have they gone from being pillars of society to being so marginalised?

And how do these women feel about being filmed? Durman says that they are delighted. They think it is wonderful that the problems they as women in rural Morocco face are finally getting attention. Along with the increasing number of Morchidat, maybe this is a big step for them in terms of better access to education, and an understanding that Islam is not an oppressive religion; rather, one that welcomes women to be leaders and enjoy the freedom that education and equality brings them.

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