In Majid, director Nassim Abassi powerfully realises the maxim that every journey takes us back home. The eponymous hero, a 10 year-old orphan, has just moved to Mohammadia with his brother, a charming but self-centred and feckless drunk. He makes a little money selling books on the street and lives a depressing and solitary life. At the beginning of the film he becomes increasingly distraught that he cannot remember his parents’ faces. They died in a fire when he was a baby. Tormented by the fact that the only available connection he could have to his parents — memory — is denied to him, he decides to go to Casablanca in search of a photograph. As comrade in arms he recruits a rough-and-ready, streetwise, and wise-talking new friend: Larbi.
The film centres on the stunning performances of both of these boys (I am aware that such statements are little clichéd but in this film they are also true). We follow Majid and Larbi as they negotiate their way through scrapes with local thugs, invite suspicion from the gendarmerie and sell an almost innumerable amount of cigarettes. The audience at Leighton House Museum, where the film was screened as part of the Nour and MENA Film festivals, was so enamoured with Larbi and his brilliant portrayal of a child living on the street that almost anything he said was met with peals of laughter. Humour is a key part of this film, which manages to reconcile its numerous comic moments with a deep emotional core in a way that is quite uncommon. Only very occasionally do the more serious moments jar a little with the fast-paced lighter scenes. As a film that is both genuinely funny and genuinely moving it invites comparison with the classic Life is Beautiful.
In fact, it is testament to the quality of the film that it calls to mind numerous other influences. The boys’ endless journeying, diverted at almost every step, all in search of a token of family life, elicits parts of Homer’s Odyssey in more ways than one; while the social realism of modern day Morocco is reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves. However, the most profitable comparison that can be made with this film is probably to Dickens. As our two protagonists travel the streets of Mohammadia and Casablanca they meet an unenviable variety-pack of the self-interested, self-obsessed, self-deluding, violent, and grotesque. At times it feels as if we have wandered into Victorian London, but the weather is better and everyone is speaking Arabic.
Humour is a key part of this film, which manages to reconcile its numerous comic moments with a deep emotional core in a way that is quite uncommon
Perhaps the best statement of Abassi’s intentions came as a result of an unrelated question. He was asked why, at the end of the film, Majid did not take time out to go the mosque and pray, since one of the only places he was shown kindness was in a mosque. Abassi’s response was, to paraphrase, that he did not mean the film to be a call to Islam rather to show how Islam fitted into Moroccan culture, how his parents and grand-parents saw it. It was a small statement against a very stereotypical view of Islam that he had experience in the West. Religion is not something separate from Moroccan society but an integral part of it. Often it is deeply spiritual and benevolent but also at times very human. The film opens with a religious man hitting Majid because he is trying to sell his books when he should be inside praying. In a light-hearted scene later on there is a debate between this religious conservative and his friend about the hijab. His friend has a sister in France and he is advising her, on Islamic grounds, to remove her veil. In other words, this film is not pontificating about Islam, but rather it is told in the light of Islam. Likewise, Abassi is not trying to give a comprehensive vision of Morocco, with all its good and bad points, but simply to tell a Moroccan story.
There is probably no better space to watch a film than upstairs at Leighton House Museum, except downstairs at Leighton House Museum. However, Majid is set to be released on DVD in 2013 and also has the dubious honour of being novelised in the near future. I cannot fully recommended, in theory, the novelisation but this film is a highly entertaining and often emotional work from a young director. His voice is unique and I, for one, am excited to see what he will do next.
Images courtesy of Majid.com