The Sea is Behind, produced in 2014, takes place in another world, one that is black and white and grimy, following a man named Tarik who dresses as a woman and dances for weddings, an old Moroccan tradition called H’dya.
The film, however, presents much more than the story of Tarik, offering a dystopian and dramatic insight into social and political realities in the Arab world.
In the film we watch the protagonist go through life with indifference, which as the story slowly unfolds, becomes disturbing.
With his job as a H’dya, he takes ridicule and accusations of being a homosexual with a flat apathetic demeanour.
We hear his thoughts as he talks of his children’s laughter that haunts him. He grieves mysteriously and he expresses his desire to feel anger, and yet his numb inability to do so.
A malicious character named Lotfi then appears and it is revealed that this man has taken Tarik’s wife, killed his children and taken over his house. Yet, Tarik walks with this man almost obediently, his anger towards him failing to reach the surface and translate to any action.
“Tarik is a man who has lost all emotion, and has lost his virility. Because he didn’t take action as a man should,” Lamia Chraibi, the film's co-producer, told Ahram Online.
Beyond Tarik’s state of mind, and through the bleak world he portrays, Lasri has layered the film with social and political critique through symbolism.
Questioning gender roles and social stigma, the notion of a man dancing clothed as a woman is a sight that used to be acceptable, but is ridiculed and looked down upon in the present.
“The idea of the main character as a H’dya is to present this old job, something that was part of our (Moroccan) culture, and explore the changes that happened toward this idea over time,” says Chraibi.
She adds that the film later developed to also bring up the issue of homosexuality indirectly.
The most obvious hint at the political undercurrent in the film is the horse named Larbi (in Moroccan dialect meaning The Arab), who stops in exhaustion while pulling the cart Tarik dances on.
“Indeed, there is a political undertone to the film, but the audience always sees what they relate to, and in Lasri’s films he leaves room for people to interpret in their own way,” Chraibi adds.
The film’s title and central character are drawn from the historical Berber army general Tariq Ibn Ziyad, who in 711-718 AD led the Islamic Umayyad army to conquer Visigothic Hispania.
When his soldiers were afraid, he burnt the ships they had arrived in, bellowing his famous quote ‘The sea is behind you, and the enemy is before you,’ leaving them with no choice but to fight.
“We see that Tarik in the film also needs to fight for himself,” Chraibi adds.
Like his film from 2011, titled The End, Lasri chose to shoot The Sea is Behind in black and white, with the characters referencing this in the film, pointing that it is futile to care for colour because the world is grey and colourless anyway.
“Black and white creates distance between the viewer and the story, a world like a fable. And it is this distance that makes it possible for the viewer to really see the situation from the outside,” Chraibi says.
Fulfilling the role of creative producer, Chraibi works with Lasri on the content of his films, joining in the process of refining the script and content.
“Sometimes I want to focus more on the story. I am more aware of the audience, and I try to make Lasri take things into consideration to make the film more accessible,” Chraibi says.
“He is very precise with what he wants. When he gives me the first draft I can tell right away if we have a chance for funding, and I try to make the film something I can handle when considering funding.”
“I like how Lasri’s work, though maybe strange, is very intense. He tries to look at society in a way that has humour but is also dark, making this type of film a risk to take, but one that I enjoy and believe in,” she says.
Chraibi and Lasri met in 2008 and have recurrently worked together since, producing Lasri’s films The End, Terminus Des Anges (Angels Terminal) with the latest, The Sea is Behind.
“As producer I go for films a little more forceful. It’s all about questioning. Films that are not just entertaining, but give society something to think about and evoke a reaction,” Chraibi says.
With Chraibi’s awareness of the audience, she tries to balance between being bold and accessible, a feat that can prove challenging.
“In the Arab world it is difficult to not be touched by censorship, even from our own selves. I’m happy to work with Lasri, even if I have to be careful with his mind.”
The Sea is Behind was featured in the Dubai International Film Festival in 2014, and Berlinale of 2015, yet it hasn’t been screened in Morocco yet.
“It is important to show it in Morocco, but we also need exposure and critique and that is how international festivals, and now showing it in Egypt, helps us,” Chraibi says.
Chraibi anticipates that the film might be hard to accept for Moroccan audiences in particular.
“It’s not easy for Moroccan people to let someone show this side of Morocco, but this is the side Lasri wants to show. It's not that it’s ugly, it’s just intense.”
On what reaction the filmmakers aim to trigger, Chraibi says: “I think ultimately we hope the audience would contemplate their situation, and see the film as a mirror, a catalyst to take some action.”