Sensuality and desire come to the fore in Maryam Touzani's sophomore feature The Blue Caftan – Contributing Writer Anahit Behrooz sits down with the filmmaker to unfold her study of love.
Something blue ripples on the screen – it is hard to tell if it is the lilt of the ocean, or something slightly sturdier, more tangible. A hand presses into reams of silk with a touch that is almost erotic; fabric is tenderly stretched, measured, stitched through with knotted gold. Something beautiful is being made, a piece on which glances will snag, even as the person making it stays in the shadows.
In The Blue Caftan, who is seen, and who is not seen, defines everything. Gentle and doe-eyed tailor Halim lives an innocuous life hand-stitching traditional caftans in a small shop deep in the tangled alleyways of a Moroccan medina, where he works with his wife Mina; yet their marriage is both complicated and strangely strengthened by Halim’s queer desires, kept secret from everyone but his wife and the young apprentice that enters their lives. Fear and regret are spun through the characters’ lives, an ugly snarl that can only be teased out by the grace and care they extend to one another. At its heart, Maryam Touzani’s sophomore feature is a study in love – the expressions of it that we are made to see, and the ones that can bloom even in the most impenetrable of shade. We sat down with Touzani to discuss sensuality, desire, and the implacable defiance of love felt beyond definition.
There is a subversiveness to how you craft love stories in The Blue Caftan – the love between Halim and Mina is beautiful precisely because of its platonic nature, while the extramarital affair contains all the passion and tenderness we might expect from a marriage. What were the ways you wanted love to structure this film?
I believe that love is a very complex emotion, and we have a tendency to try to oversimplify things and draw very clear lines. I just don't believe that love is that way. Love is something that is bigger than us. We try to define marital love between a man and a woman in a certain manner, but there's so many different ways to love. I wanted to talk about this profound love between Halim and Mina, because they do love each other profoundly. That's really what I wanted to explore: how this couple is going to be redefining their own love for one another.
This idea of simplification is so interesting – hearing the basic premise of the story, it could so easily be that Mina has become jealous or bitter or cruel in her approach to Halim, but they do have a successful marriage in many ways.
Of course. They care deeply for each other; when she is ill we see how Halim cares for her, every single detail. He does this out of love. Mina decides to stay with her husband – although she knows he is gay – because she loves him, not because anybody obliges her to do so. That was important for me. She stays with this man because she loves the human being he is, and that is enough.
There’s a real intimacy to how you explore queerness: the homophobia in the film is mandated at a structural, state level, yet is told through these very personal, quotidian moments. How did you approach distilling this broader political environment into a singular narrative?
I'm always inspired by people I meet, by the emotions they provoke. I hardly ever know where the stories come from, because the characters just start making their way inside me, and one day there's a story that has already started to take shape and I just need to let it out. But particularly for this film, I met a man as I was scouting for my previous film, Adam, and I was very touched by all the things I felt this man was not saying about his life. I felt very strongly that there was a huge aspect to who he was that he was hiding – or maybe not hiding, but that he was obliged to keep in the shade. I never asked him any personal questions, but the emotion he provoked stayed alive within me for a long time.
I realised it was because he reminded me of couples when I was growing up, and hearing à demi mot that they were obliged to get married because they had to keep up a social facade. And even as an adolescent, it hurt me to feel there were people who had to deny who they were on an everyday basis. They had to pretend to be somebody they were not, because society decided it couldn't be otherwise. So when I met this man, it really stirred something. As human beings we advance in life and we absorb all these different emotions, people that impact us in different manners. Sometimes they will be there for years, and then one day…
This idea of things being hidden is so striking in the context of how silence is used in the film – what people say and what they don’t is so charged. How did you want to create a language beyond language?
It's something I do as I'm writing, the silence is already there. I like to strip myself off from unnecessary dialogue, to feel that my characters are just saying things that are essential for them at that particular moment. I like things that don't have to be put in words to be expressed: what a glance can tell, what a hand gesture can tell. Now I know myself a bit more, I think it comes from my love for literature: being in a character's mind for 20 pages and yes, you have words but they're not what the character is expressing, but at the same time you're in their mind, and you're feeling what they're feeling. The need to transpose that visually makes me get rid of the dialogue.
It is also such a tactile film – language is conveyed through materiality, and through a character’s relationship with the physical world around them.
From the start I wanted us to feel, for example, Halim's hands touching the fabric at the beginning of the film. I wanted it to be sensual, to be almost a loving touch. It's really about understanding Halim, really delving into the intricacy of his character and the things that he does not show the outside world because he has to protect himself. And as he's making these embroideries, it's like he is stitching his own wound. Through these gestures, I really wanted to understand the workings of a soul.
How did the symbol of the caftan become so central to this story?
I grew up with my mother wearing this beautiful caftan, identical to the one in the film except black. As a little girl I always used to observe her and think well, one day I'm going to be a woman, one day I'm going to be able to wear it. And then one day, it actually fit and she gave it to me, and that is when I really understood the power of transmission. There was something so beautiful in wearing this garment that I had seen her wear so many times, full of her memories – it was like a whole part of her existence that I was wearing. I'm very touched by things that have a soul, by places that have a soul.
And there's something very beautiful about Halim creating things that are joyful for people, in the ways he participates in people's loves and families and histories.
For sure. And what's somehow ironic is that he is making these beautiful caftans that are going to be worn by women openly, and there is this whole part of his life that he is obliged to hide. So there is this constant contradiction. He is working to keep alive a dying trade, because he loves it. But then there is this other tradition that is keeping him from being who he is. I do believe that tradition can be something extremely beautiful, and that is something I wanted to honour. But I also believe there are traditions that have to be changed, that have to be shaken.
Do you feel these traditions when it comes to queerness are being shaken in Morocco, or is there still a resistance to it?
There is a resistance, but at the same time in the past years there has been positive change. The fact that the film was funded by the Centre Cinématographique Marocain – although it's a film that talks about a subject that in Morocco is very sensitive – that's a very big step forward. There is a real desire to be able to talk through art about things that aren't spoken about easily in society. What has to be changed is the mentality. That's the only way to make things advance. Once the mentality is changed, the laws follow. But it's important to create empathy, a different regard, to provoke questions in order to make people go to places in their mind that they would not necessarily go. Cinema has a part to play in that.The Blue Caftan is in UK cinemas now.