Back in 2012, Asmae El Moudir started her magnum opus, “The Mother of all Lies,” which debuted at Cannes 2023, where it won the Best Documentary prize. Morocco submitted the film for Oscar consideration, and it made the International shortlist, though not Best Documentary; the PGA nominated the film for Best Documentary, and it won Best Director from the IDA. “The Mother of All Lies” is playing in the Sundance Spotlight section (where screenings are sold out) and is nominated for Foreign Language Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.
The movie accomplished this without a distributor. Morocco has supported El Moudir with a modest number of screenings, a publicist, and a place to stay in Los Angeles (with Moroccan Ministry of Culture representative and translator Khadija Alami).
The movie is a testament to dogged creativity. El Moudir, in seeking to explode her family secrets, persuaded her builder father to help her fashion clay puppets and elaborate sets in order to relate the story of the 1981 Casablanca bread riots, witnessed and then suppressed by her family and neighbors. “I wanted to have the soul in front of no soul,” said El Moudir, who used the puppets as a way to get participants in the riots to talk.
After two years of just recording people talking in her home in Casablanca, where her grandmother forbade all cameras and photographs, El Moudir decided to rent an atelier in Marrakesh, where she and her father built the sets and puppets and invited her “characters,” family and friends, to come for interviews. El Moudir had the freedom to shoot whatever and whenever — amassing 500 hours of footage — but didn’t know when she would ever finish the film.
“I need some silence in telling the story,” she said. “It’s not only talking, because the film is about the unsaid. I cannot imagine when I will finish this film. There is no timeline. I have no structure of where this film will be when, because I started in 2012. How can we tell a story without any concrete or visual proofs of what has happened? And so I shoot to create my own archive.”
In Marrakesh, El Moudir was able to “build some new walls without ears,” she said. “They will talk freely. We will destroy everything. We’re gonna go back. There is no one from the crew inside. There are only my characters and my DOP. The laboratory is sacred, it’s like a cave, there is no light from the outside, only the light that we put from the first day.”
She did not know ahead of time what family friend Abdullah would reveal. She told him: “This is your day. Tell your story now.” Drawing hard on a cigarette, he finally broke down and recounted the horrific details of his imprisonment in a tiny cell where many men suffocated and died.
As one by one, others told their stories, the question was whether the grandmother would ever talk. “She’s the mother of all lies because there is some censorship that my grandmother created in the house,” she said. “And for me, the house is just a symptom of the society. Our little family stories in the house are only a symptom of other bigger ones. They grew bigger and exploded and broke the walls escaping in the street, and we discovered the mother of all lies. It’s the lie about the bodies hidden. We are not looking for guilty people; we are just trying to understand the relationship to the truth.”
Two days before her scheduled shooting in Marrakesh, the grandmother was still wavering. Exasperated, El Moudir showed her photos of the three Moroccan actresses who could play her and asked her to pick one. After two hours she called: “You mean that ugly woman will be me?”
“Yes,” said El Moudir. “I have no choice. I want to finish this, to move on, because I’m tired.”
The grandmother came to the studio on the day, but created havoc and destroyed some sets. “She was fighting with everyone,” said El Moudir. “She was the dictator. She was the director. Sometimes I lose control of her. I just let her and then when she’s finished, I just tried to catch the behind the scenes.”
The grandmother, who had never seen a movie in a theater, came to the Cannes Film Festival. Instead of watching her own world premiere, El Moudir was watching her grandmother, who is now 86, terrified that she would disrupt the proceedings. Everything was fine.
The good news is that the film was effective in altering the family dynamic. “Now the relationship is changing,” said El Moudir. “I wouldn’t think that the film could be a therapy, but at the end it was! The relationship has changed between me and my family, my mother and all the characters.”
At Cannes, El Moudir watched as Abdullah danced at her party. “He never, never danced,” she said. “I was surprised.”