A version of this interview with “The Blue Caftan” director Maryam Touzani first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Maryam Touzani, who represented Morocco in the Oscar race with 2019’s “Adam,” returns to the race with the story of a closeted master caftan maker whose wife hires him a young apprentice. The film pays careful attention to a dying craft even as it explores one of the strongest taboos in Moroccan society.
This film was inspired by something that happened when you were working on “Adam,” wasn’t it?
It was. When I was scouting for “Adam,” I was looking for a hairdressing salon to open the film. And I met the only man in the Medina (shopping area) that had a women’s hairdressing salon. That was something quite strange, because Casablanca is a very conservative place, and all salons will be held by women. I was very I was curious when I met this man, and there was something very touching about him.
He reminded me of men that I had seen growing up, stories that I had heard growing up. Because in Morocco these are things that you don’t necessarily talk about. I used to hear stories about men with other men. But in everyday life, this man had to really pretend to be somebody that he was not, because the social pressure was way too big. He had to build this whole facade that somehow was acceptable. And I’ve heard of a lot of men who get married just to keep the facade.
I felt this desire to question love, to talk about love. Because for me, above all, “The Blue Caftan” is a film about love, with its multitude of faces.
Watching the film, you can’t help but reflect on how tradition can lead to amazing artistry, but it can also erect walls that tell people what they can and cannot be.
Absolutely. That’s why it was very important to talk about tradition in this sense. Tradition is part of who we are, part of our DNA. There are things in tradition that really need to be preserved and highlighted and defended. But then there are traditions that can act as barriers. The moment that tradition becomes a barrier to your freedom, I think the tradition has to be questioned.
I mean, I live in a country where being gay is illegal, you know? The laws need to evolve and change, and mentalities need to advance and need to evolve. I think it’s essential in a society such as mine to be able to shake these things up.
The film deals with big emotions, with death and love and desire. But everything is played with restraint and grace.
How can I put it? I wanted to understand things through their glances, through the things that they did not say. This couple lives with all these things that have not been said, and I wanted to explore this through the intimacy in the filming. I think life is about detail. Sometimes we are waiting for the huge things and big events, whereas we don’t see the little things that are essential to our everyday existence. And that’s where I wanted to put my focus: on all these little details that constitute the life of this couple. But what I wanted above all is to delve into the intimacy of their beings in order to understand them more.
You shot the film in Morocco. If the subject matter had gotten out, could you have been shut down?
For sure. Homosexuality in Morocco is a taboo subject, and shooting a film that talks about it would’ve been a big, big risk. Every day when we went to shoot, I didn’t know if the next day we would be shooting. In our society, there are a lot of things that are OK as long as they’re not spoken. But I really believe that there are stories that need to come out in the open in order to bring about change. For me, as long as you have a strong belief in the film that you’re making and the characters that you’re talking about and the deep reasons you have for telling the story, then nothing else matters.
I assume that now that your film is representing Morocco at the Oscars, the biggest international film showcase, there will be people who’ve become aware of “The Blue Caftan” and will speak out against it.
Of course there are, but I don’t mind them. I mean, this is something that’s naturally going to happen. The positive thing is that it’s going to stimulate the debate, and we’re going to be able to talk about subjects that we don’t talk about. Because homosexuality, once again, is something unspoken or hardly spoken of. It’s one of the ultimate taboos. So if there are people that are against this, it’s not a problem.
I’m open to debate. I think debate is essential. I think it’s crucial for a healthy society to be able to debate everything. And it’s only through debate that change can come about.
Read more from the International Film issue here.