One former detainee at Tazmamarat, Ahmed al-Marzouki, did not hide the fact that the film failed to meet his expectations: "in the first place, I salute any artistic or literary work which touches on the suffering in this jail and I salute the directorʹs courage in tackling this sensitive subject. That said, had the director met some former inmates while he was writing the script, many of the misconceptions in his film could have been avoided. Alas, it seems as if he only read what has been written about the detainees."

Marzouki strongly criticises what he sees as a kind of rehabilitation of the former prison guards. He says they were horrific executioners and committed serious crimes, including practically torturing prisoners to death. The only exceptions were three guards who helped detainees to varying degrees. "There were no guards in Tazmamarat who were torn between conscience and duty," says Marzouki, who notes that the prisonersʹ suffering in the film was understated. Even the way in which that suffering was presented in a scene about serving meals to the prisoners was not real. Indeed, the guards used to humiliate the prisoners at most meal times.

Historical fact or cinematic fiction?

As might have been expected, the film has stirred up the age-old debate between cinema and history. Should fictional films present the historical events that inspired the narrative exactly as they were, or does the director have the right to construct the scenario as he sees fit, as long as he makes clear that the film is not necessarily telling a true story. The director Alaouiʹs response is that he has not enlisted history to serve his artistic point of view. Indeed, he did not rely on history at all: "the scenario was inspired by the detention camps which surrounded the region where I lived and by the stories I was hearing. I did not mention a time or a place or a name in any scene. The movie is about prisons, and it may be in Morocco or elsewhere, since injustice can happen anywhere."

Marzouki, the author of "Cell No. 10", in which he presented horrific testimonies about his years of detention in Tazmamarat, believes that the film should have stuck to the events as they happened. "It should have been more honest in dealing with the truth, so as not to confuse audiences about the awful nature of this prison. Only then should the director add his artistic touches, as he chooses." Marzouki said the film downplayed the awfulness of the prison by including scenes which were completely at odds with what actually happened.

On the other hand, the critic Zuweirik says the film is a long way from being Tazmamarat prison, in shape or substance. "This prison may have formed the germ of Marzoukiʹs idea, but Alaoui's film doesnʹt necessarily represent any specific prison, nor is it set in a particular historical period."

Zuweirik adds that "time and place" in the film are all-embracing and absolute; it may symbolise the present, take us back to the past, or move us to the future – and it may transport us to any corner of the world. That is the source of the filmʹs power. As he says, we need to remember that the film is a work of fiction, not a documentary, and therefore cannot be held to account in historical terms.

Ismail Azzam

© 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

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