Interview with Meryem Benm’Barek

Véronique Le Bris
Véronique Le Bris

"The representation of Arab heroines in European cinema is imperfect"

In Morocco, sex outside marriage is punishable by law. Offenders—both women and men, risk from one month to one year of prison. In Sofia, her first feature? film, director Meryem Benm'barek brilliantly deals with the subject through the portrait of a girl with formidable pragmatism. Sofia received the Screenplay Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and the Valois Screenplay at the Angoulême 2018 Francophone Film Festival. The film began its career on September 5 in France.


How did you get the idea for Sofia?

Meryem Benm'Barek: Sofia is a sadly banal and everyday story in Morocco: that of a young woman who has a child without being married. However, sex outside marriage is punishable by law with  imprisonment. It is a real scourge to which all families are confronted by from near and far. Roughly 150 single mothers give birth each day in Casablanca. It's not even a taboo! But it is all the more easily settled if one has money.


What do you mean?

MB'B: That this law is clearly arbitrary and discriminatory and that its victims are often the poorest. All Moroccans have a sex life, not necessarily healthy or unhealthy but its "consequences" are more easily resolved if we have the means. In Morocco, with money and the right contacts, we can outdo the system and avoid penalty. My film deals above all with this social divide.


More than the feminine condition?

MBB: It deals with both subjects. In my eyes, the representation of Arab heroines in the cinema is imperfect. Most films that work in Europe seem to fulfill a certain "criteria". As a result, they continue to paint Arabic women as victims of patriarchy and misogyny.


And this is not the case?

MBB: Morocco is a patriarchal society. But Sofia objects her victim status because she does not have the privilege to accept this status. We must have the means to defend ourselves and to assume such a position. For me, it's related to money, because women are economically more fragile than men.


Your film was first supported by the Doha Film Institute, then by the Gan Foundation. It is distributed by Memento and was selected and awarded at Cannes, Angoulême ... A perfect course!

MBB: The Doha Film Institute was the first organization to help us. Then, we received the support of the Gan Foundation, which is a guarantee of quality. This triggered the commitment of Canal +, then the advance on recipe rom the CNC. But, nothing was easy. Sofia is the result of a lot of work. I had to be tenacious, down to earth and accept failures—only to bounce back, and finally make many sacrifices.


Which ones?

MBB: When you are a woman and you choose this job, there is a biological inequality between us and men that leads to taking more risks, especially on maternity. If your family can not help you, you face precariousness. Not only for a short period of time. Sofia is the result of 15 very complicated years.


These awards are a nice recognition, right?

MBB: The script is the basis of the film, the story told to the public, which makes people go to the movies. I could not dream better! (This is unclear)


Will Sofia come out in Morocco?

MBB: It is expected to come out at the end of the year, after the Marrakech festival. It is very important for me. I made a modest film that could open a debate in Morocco and not close it. A movie that goes home and goes on TV.


What are your plans for now?

MBB: I would like to dig the West's gaze on the Arab world, through a love story shot in France. But before I can write, I will accompany Sofia to Poland, Sarajevo and several festivals in Europe and elsewhere.