Exactly 10 years ago today, the historic city of Casablanca, Morocco was shaken by a series of suicide bombings all carried out by young men from the same shantytown known as . The lives lost that day were victim not only to the physical perpetrators but the economic disparity and lack of opportunities that allows desperation to be exploited under the name of divinity. What does it take for a person to be willing to die and kill in the name of God? Director Nabil Ayouch explores these events profoundly by focusing on retracing the lives of these men who went from living in the outskirts of society to become weapons in a war that doesn't belong to them. With his film Horses of God, Ayouch tries to see his subjects as victims themselves caught between a toxic ideology and their precarious circumstances. Using powerful imagery the film and enhancing his frames with a sense of honesty that comes from his personal connection to this place, the director delivers a provocative statement that is as politically charged as it is emotionally affecting. Here is what the Moroccan filmmaker had to say.
Aguilar: As we know the story is based on the terrible events that took place in Casablanca in 2003, but your film is more interested in showing what cam before that fateful date, and by doing so humanize the perpetrators.
Nabil Ayouch: I was very interested in violence itself because I believe violence has a source. It has a reason why; it doesn’t come from the sky. I was interested in the genesis of violence. Their childhood and the other trauma these boys experienced, is what turned into suicide bombers.
Aguilar: The film's tagline is “No one is born a martyr.” How is this fabricated fundamentalism and forced martyrdom created ? How do these young men evolve into terrorists?
Nabil Ayouch: There is not one reason why someone could turn into a suicide bomber. As you can see in the film there is some macro reasons, to call them something, which are being cut off from the rest of society, having no hope, no future, no employment, and no education, as the schools don’t play a part anymore. The state has abandoned them and obviously they carry this profound feeling of abandonment in general. The family doesn’t play a part either, there is no more love, no more care. There is no structure in the family unit and the fathers are absent. All these issues will affect them at a certain point in their existence and made them grow up differently than if they were given love or attention.
Aguilar: How did you find information on their stories and the town itself? Who were your sources in this isolated town?
Nabil Ayouch: I got my information from different sources. I spent more than 2 years on the ground in Sidi Moumen, in the slum. I knew there were anthropologists and sociologists working with different associations, so I talked to them to see what they had to say. We talked about the events themselves; some of them knew the suicide bombers so I’d asked them about them and how it happened. I also worked with a Moroccan researcher who did some strong research on the subject of radical Islamism, so there were many different sources
Aguilar: In the film, one of the brothers, Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid) goes to prison and returns a completely different person. Was he vulnerable enough to be manipulated by the religious fundamentalists?
Nabil Ayouch: This happens a lot in Morocco, very often when a very bad boy goes to jail and then gets out, he becomes a religious new man, because jail is one of the most favorable places to brainwash someone. This is what I wanted to show in the film, someone with a background like Hamid’s, can very quickly be brainwashed because he is in prison with these type of people.
Aguilar: Hamid then convinces his brother Yacine (Abdelhakim Rachi) to join the Islamist group, but as times get more violent and the crucial moment approached, he is not so sure anymore. On the other hand, Yacine seems to get more and more comfortable with the idea of dying for this ideas. How does this switch between them happens?
Nabil Ayouch: Jamal Belmahi, the screenwriter, and I asked ourselves what would be the best way to tell this story. It appeared to us that the relationship between the two brothers would be what brought everything together. This is one of the human aspects of the film that we wanted to focus on. The relationship between Yacine and Hamid at the beginning is one of admiration, respect, and protection. Then when Hamid goes to jail Yacine is left alone, he is lost. When Hamid comes back he is a another man, their relationship turns into one based on competition, a fight between the two brothers. This competitiveness is what leads Yacine to make the decision to become a suicide bomber followed by his friends Nabil (Hamza Souidek), and Foad (Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani). What I wanted to say by doing this is that poverty is not the only reason that leads them to commit terrible acts, there are other personal issues and human aspects. Otherwise there would be millions of people willing to become suicide bombers all over the world. That’s why we decided to build the film around this brotherhood.
Aguilar: They are obviously victims of the circumstances, but do you think that they really do end up believing in their “cause” or is the fact that they got nothing to
lose that makes it for easy to become "martyrs"?
Nabil Ayouch: They think they believe in this cause, they make them believe in them. The rhetoric that these Islamic fundamentalists teach is very simple. They always use the same words, the same speeches. It is really brainwashing. This type of speech cannot reach and cannot target anyone; you really have to feel desperate, hopeless, and abandoned to be open to this kind of words. That’s the most important aspect in the film, these people in the Sidi Moumen are not happier or unhappier than people anywhere else, but they really feel cutoff from society. The fact that they feel that way allows some other people to come and tell them their truth, brainwash them, and tell them what they should do. They end up believing that they believe in this “cause.”
Aguilar: This is an epic film that takes us from the protagonists' childhoods throught their transformation into living weapon, how was the process for you as a filmmaker to tell this extensive story about such terrible real life events?
Nabil Ayouch: I have a very old relationship with Sidi Moumen because I shot one of my previous movies called , the beginning of that movie was shot there too. Since the 90s I have been shooting some documentaries there and other works as well, so when I heard in 2003 that the suicide bombers all came from this shantytown, I was shocked. For years I decided not to go back, I felt that I had been blind because I didn’t see clues of this events when I was there. It was until 2008 that I decided to return to Sidi Moumen and began this long process of doing research and meeting people. One year after that I read the novel by Mahi Binebine called The Stars of Sidi Moumen, and I decided that it would be the subject of the film - the characters were very strong in the book. I started based on the book, and at the same time I was still continuing my research on the ground with the sociologist. The whole concept took me around 3 years including the preparation to shoot the film.
Aguilar: Were your actors connected with this story in any way? Where they from a nearby town or did you decide to use professional talent?
Nabil Ayouch: Well the actors that play the main parts they are all unprofessional actors. It was their first time on the screen and most of them were born and raised in Sidi Moumen. I met them while I was doing my research there, some of them grabbed my attention with their charisma and what they had to say. I decided to begin the casting process with them. I didn’t want to betray them. I had worked with them for two years on the ground learning about this topic, and at the end I didn’t want to say “Look, thank you very much, but now I’m going to bring professional actors to play your parts.” So I decided to jump into this adventure with them, it made sense. They had played in the same playground as the real suicide bombers, they prayed in the same Mosque, some of them even knew them, they were not close, but they knew them. They have their own truth, their own life experiences in this neighborhood, and they know how it is to live there. That’s what they brought to the film.
Aguilar: What was the reaction to the film in Morocco? How difficult is it for people there to see a film about something so close to home?
Nabil Ayouch: For some people I think it was difficult to see this in Morocco. There is a sort of guilt, is as if they felt like they were responsible for what happened
somehow. Is like if the film opened their eyes about this issues that they had ignored for a long time. This shantytown is about 4 or 5 miles away from my
place in the center of Casablanca. At the time when I asked people in the shantytown if they ever went to the center of the city, 50% of them would say
they never went there. On the contrary, 99% of the inhabitants of the city don’t even know how the shantytown looks like. They are cut off from each other.
For them, in the city, discovering this film was like opening their eyes to a reality that was really sad and very harsh for them.
Then in a second screening more people went to see it. Some radical Islamists didn’t like it, but there were no big riots against the film, bu of course the film won’t please everyone. Then I decided to screen the film a year ago in the shantytown of Sidi Moumen, there were more than 300 people in the room and they could finally watch themselves on the screen. It was a very emotional because the victims’ families came from the center of Casablanca and the suicide bombers’ families were also there and they finally met each other. It was a very big moment.
Aguilar: After more than 10 years of the events, has anything changed in this town or in Morocco in general?
Nabil Ayouch: I would lie if I told you that nothing has changed because lots of things have changed. For example, now there is a tram that links this neighborhood with
the center of Casablanca, it is very important for them to have a way to reach the center of the city. Some really good things are happening in Sidi
Moumen, but this town is only the visible part of the iceberg. There are lots of Sidi Moumens no only in Morocco but in countries all over the
world. Where we should be very careful is in education, and we are not good enough in that regard yet. The lack of education is the best entryway for brainwashing.