Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir’s experimental, strange and riveting documentary The Mother of All Lies delves into secrets that her family, and her country, have kept for years. The film won the Best Directing award in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Now it is Morocco’s nominee for the International Feature Film Oscar.
At the head of El Moudir’s family is her grandmother, a severe woman who has ruled over her relatives for decades with an iron fist. She’s an expert “killjoy,” El Moudir notes, but the director also learns through this project about layers of trauma that could help explain her toughness. One of the pieces of the puzzle is the horrific 1981 massacre of Moroccan citizens protesting the rising cost of basic food supplies, nine years before El Moudir was born. Grandma locked her family in the house that day, likely saving their lives. But among the victims was their 12-year-old neighbor, Fatima.
El Moudir notes that, at age 12, Fatima became a memory with no body. At the same age, she says, she herself was a body with no memories, because no photographs of her early childhood existed. Her grandmother’s strict rules against photographs is one of the mysteries she’s looking to solve by moving her family temporarily into a warehouse-like setting and prompting them to talk about the past, perhaps reconciling lasting tensions, and to star, sometimes reluctantly, in her documentary.
Her handyman father builds a miniature replica of their Casablanca neighborhood. Her mother sews clothes for the little dolls representing them and their neighbors. In a haunting voiceover in which El Moudir often whispers, sometimes sounding like a little girl, she suggests the place they’ve constructed is one where they can free their memories and their words, after years of silence. “The walls have ears,” her grandmother regularly warns, and in this case, they also have cameras.
Family members and neighbors give interviews, events are reenacted – sometimes with the miniature dolls and buildings, relationships are explored, and the past is bit by bit reconstructed. There’s no linear narrative here, but each new layer of storytelling, each new piece of information we get about the characters begins to slowly, poetically construct a fuller picture of why El Moudir has brought them together, like the pixels of an impressionist painting gradually coming into focus.
Around halfway into the film, neighbor Said recounts his own horrifying tale of the day Fatima died, and he was beaten, dragged away from his home and thrown into a cell so full that men were suffocating one on top of another. He reenacts the story himself, laying dolls into a makeshift miniature cell, taking off his shirt as he remembers the heat, crawling around the floor like he crawled on top of other men’s backs. “They destroyed me,” he concludes tearily.
He wasn’t the only one. El Moudir’s father had dreamed of playing professional soccer, until the day the soccer field where he trained was plowed over – to make way, years later it was revealed, for bodies in a mass grave, including Fatima’s. Some 600 people died that day, including children, El Moudir tells us.
You get the sense El Moudir needed to embark on this very personal deconstruction to make peace with her own past, her family and also her identity – built, she notes, on unreliable memories and no photographic archives. Perhaps that’s why she is rarely seen in full in the film. We glimpse pieces of her and see her reflected in mirrors or positioned between miniature buildings. She’s represented by a doll, and other people’s miniature versions replace them in some scenes too.
It also seems clear that it’s her parents’ generation which has carried the weight of the events of 1981 on their shoulders. The Mother of All Lies functions a bit like a group therapy session. As people in locations all over the world have learned again and again, historical memory is a collective effort.