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“I Write Stories Using Light”: Asmae El Moudir Discusses ‘The Mother of All Lies’

By Lauren Wissot

Still image from 'The Mother of All Lies,' showing a closeup shot of half of an old woman's face. She is holding a figurine covering her mouth.

Asmae El Moudir’s grandmother, as seen in The Mother of All Lies, directed by Asmae El Moudir. Courtesy of Insightfilms.

Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir (2020’s The Postcard) grew up in a world in which images were forbidden. She had no childhood photos (save for one that she doubted was even her) and only learned as an adult of the shocking military crackdown that occurred in her neighborhood in 1981; not only were the “bread riots” absent from any school lessons, but only a single photograph managed to make it past government censors and into her nation's historical archive.

So when her parents decided to finally move from her childhood home, the director-writer-producer seized the opportunity to both help out and potentially solve the mystery behind these unexplained erasures. Returning to Casablanca, she did what any dogged camera-carrying investigator would do, which is to try to get some answers to her burning lifelong questions from relatives, friends, and neighbors. But she also went one step further and did what only the innovative filmmaker daughter of a distinguished local mason could possibly do—she convinced her dad to rebuild their house and district, in miniature, complete with figurines of local residents. This doll-sized neighborhood became a lovingly crafted film set El Moudir could then use as a vessel to gently transport even the most recalcitrant and reluctant to a past too traumatic to exist.

To learn more about the resulting nonfiction drama, The Mother of All Lies, shortlisted for an Oscar as Morocco’s official entry, Documentary reached out to the critically acclaimed filmmaker, who was bestowed Best Director at both Cannes’s Un Certain Regard and the 2023 IDA Documentary Awards. The Mother of All Lies next screens the Spotlight section at Sundance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: This film basically sprung from a desire to look into why you have possibly only one childhood photo. Your 2020 feature debut The Postcard likewise came from your wanting to learn more about a personal image from the past. Have these “visual mysteries” within your family—and perhaps Morocco at large—influenced your decision to become a filmmaker in the first place? Was the camera always this investigative tool for you?

ASMAE EL MOUDIR: The Mother of All Lies is my first theatrical feature, while The Postcard was an Al Jazeera TV production and is part of a trilogy about my mother. In both films, I start with a photo because I believe that behind every photo lies a story. 

I also believe that, as Freud mentions in his work, the first six years of childhood are very important in the life of every human being. I think that both my choice of subjects, and my desire to become a filmmaker who wants to tell stories, come from this absence that I experienced at the age of six. The lack of visuals in my family and in the country pushed me to ask a number of specific questions such as, “Why do we erase memory?”

I'll add that we didn't always have electricity when I was a kid. My father couldn't afford to pay the bills, so I spent a large part of my childhood without television. To make up for this I often imagined my cartoons on the unlit television screen in our house, and tried to match the sound of the neighbor's TV with the images I projected in my head. For me, becoming a filmmaker was a necessity and a remedy; a means to assert control and through which I could tell my stories. I write stories about my family and my Moroccan identity using light. And yes, the camera is an investigative tool with which I've tried to convince my grandmother that I'm a filmmaker and not a journalist. But ultimately, asking personal questions of the real people from my life can only be an investigation.

D: How did the idea of replacing the missing historical archive with your father’s replicas of the Sbata district and your house come about? Had your mason dad worked in miniature before?

AM: Telling a story of the past without any visual proof of the past was a big challenge, so I had to adapt and create a form, my own material to tell this story. As an independent producer who was also the director and editor of this sensitive tale, it wasn’t easy to find the necessary resources to realize what I had in mind. I had trouble trying to shoot on location. I couldn’t get permission to film in the cemetery, for example.

I was exhausted, already in my seventh year of this complicated project that wouldn’t come to fruition. So I eventually went back to my father, my accomplice, and implored, “Dad, you built most of the houses in this neighborhood, so go ahead and build me sets for all the places I can't shoot in.” My father had never made miniatures before, so we had to adapt everything with the help of Moroccan set decorators. Construction took eight months, while lighting the miniatures took three months, as we made all the usual lights in miniature as well.

No outside producer could have finished this film, as I was the only one who wanted to tell this story enough to disregard the obstacles. And the obstacles were huge.

D: Why did your grandmother agree to appear on camera after initially refusing? Did you have some type of agreement that allowed her to opt out at any time?

AM: The film process is part of the film. When my grandmother initially refused I took the camera away for the first three years and only recorded the sound in my house. But since time is revealing, I gave my grandmother time, and she gradually began to forget the camera was there. She was always against it, but over the years softened with its presence.

However, my grandmother did decline to go with me to the “laboratory” during the last part of the shoot. Two days before filming she told me she wouldn't move from Casablanca, so I confronted her with photos of three famous Moroccan actresses and asked her to choose one to play her in the film. She angrily kicked me out instead. Then two hours later she called: “You mean this lady is going to tell my story? I don't agree to that—as it’s my story.” I replied, “Well, then tell it, if it’s your story.” She said she’d come, but with no guarantee that she’d stay, so that was the deal. She’d be free to leave at any time.

But then the problem became that she did stay, and annoyed everyone. She annoyed me right until the end. She was the boss, she gave orders to everybody including me, the director. I don’t think any producer would have accepted that behavior. She created a lot of problems behind the scenes, and I had to remind her that the deal was that she could leave at any time. At one point I really wanted her to leave just so I could finish the film.

D: You’ve stressed that you approached the making of this film as a filmmaker—and not as a journalist—which makes me curious as to why you feel the need to draw that distinction. Does it allow for more creative choices, or considering the lack of press freedom in Morocco, is it just simply easier to get at the “truth” working as a "filmmaker" there? 

AM: The subject of the film is very sensitive, and I didn’t know how it would be viewed in Morocco, where my characters live. I had to protect them with my art. Being a journalist and investigating is a very direct act and can put their lives in danger, but being a filmmaker and inventing an artistic form to tell our story about the most traumatic period of our past can protect everyone. My grandmother always justified everything she’d done in the past by saying, “I did it to protect you.” I think that sentiment also led to my making the film the way I did. 

It was much easier to create my own truth as a filmmaker. To be a journalist would have meant searching for truth that had no physical proof, with the whole archive having been erased. So the only way to tell this story was to rely on the oral memories of my characters, and to draw the film's strength from its human side. I wasn’t looking for the guilty or to denounce anyone—which is why I’m not a journalist—but only wanted to understand our relationship to the truth; and to understand how we create stories when we don’t have any concrete or visual proof of what has happened. That’s why it was so important for me to be a director.

That said, I was also keenly aware of all the investigative journalists that disappeared and were never found during what were known as the “years of lead” in Morocco. I can’t deny that I was afraid to tackle this subject, which is why it took 10 years to make this film. I had to grow up with this project and reach a certain maturity to be able to do it and forget the fear I had at the beginning. 

D: How do all the participants feel about the final cut? Has it been viewed by your community in Casablanca? What’s been the overall reaction in Morocco to both the film and its international success?

AM: The night before the film’s Morocco debut I felt too much stress to sleep. On November 28, 2023, an unforgettable day, the film premiered as part of the official competition at the Marrakech International Film Festival. The 1000-seat theater was full. The film had already won a prize at Cannes and been shown at several festivals around the world (including Toronto, Karlovy Vary, DOC NYC, IDFA, and soon-to-be at Sundance), so Moroccans were enthusiastic to see it. In addition, it had been chosen to represent their country at the Oscars, so they were eager to ensure that the film did in fact represent them.

The audience was silently riveted; they reacted to the funny moments and followed the film's highlights exactly as I had hoped. After the screening was over, the audience—from Casablanca and all over Morocco—stood up and applauded for more than 15 minutes. I cried because the moment was so emotional for me and for my characters, who all wanted to share their stories with fellow Moroccans. All those watching could identify personally with the malaise that everyone experienced in Casablanca in the ’80s. Moreover, the presence of Nas El Ghiwane’s music in the film means a lot to Moroccans. To feature a militant group that has struggled a lot, that put strong messages across in their songs, wasn’t a simple choice for the soundtrack.    

I think generally Moroccans have accepted The Mother of All Lies as a film that resembles them, and thus it hasn’t been rejected. The film’s success was also ultimately reflected when it was awarded the Golden Star on December 2nd—the first time Morocco has ever won this award in the 20-year history of the Marrakech International Film Festival. That evening Moroccans went wild with joy—their first world cinema coup. 

We wrote the history of Moroccan cinema with this film, which wasn’t easy. First in Cannes and then in Marrakech. And I’m proud that this history was written by a woman because I know how hard it was for me as a woman to find my place as a director in my region.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.