Moroccan director Alaa Eddine Aljem discusses his first feature, The Unknown Saint, a comic and absurdist fable about the intersection of faith and commerce.
The debut feature from Moroccan writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem, presented in the Critics’ Week section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, opens on a man desperately driving away from the police in the desert. As the authorities approach, he quickly buries his loot on top of a hill, making the burial site look like a makeshift grave, before he gets caught, handcuffed, and arrested. Years later, out of prison, he sets out to recover his money — but the fake tomb, mistaken for that of an unknown saint, is now out of reach. A place of worship but also of commerce, it has become valuable to many people other than the thief: as he sets out to get his loot back, his path will cross that of many others whose lives have been affected by this new temple.
The Unknown Saint fully embraces the almost artificial emptiness of the Moroccan desert and demonstrates a keen understanding of the dramatic potential of even the most simple of premises. As the characters, calm and expressionless, move across still compositions, the work of Aki Kaurismäki immediately springs to mind. The way their various needs, desires and hopes intersect in this ludicrous image of a fake grave also recalls the Finnish director’s absurdist humour. But Aljem crafts a style entirely his own, weaving a cutting critique of the commercialisation of faith into a good-humoured and empathic comedy.
Seventh Row (7R): The Unknown Saint is a kind of fable. Why did you choose this kind of storytelling, which we do not encounter very often in cinema anymore?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: In Moroccan culture, we have a long tradition of tales. It’s often an oral tradition, and it often takes the form of a fable. So it’s a type of narration we often have, but we mostly have it in a traditional, oral way, passed on through speech. I thought it would be interesting to work on that but through another support, which is cinema, to try to do that with images and sounds. I think that’s where the desire to explore this storytelling comes from — especially since there aren’t that many films like this.
7R: There’s a realist side to The Unknown Saint — it touches on real conflicts. How did you work at integrating these real things into the structure of the fable?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: There’s a new generation of young filmmakers in Morocco and in the whole region, which I think manages to be both in continuity with and in a break from what our predecessors have done. I think the whole region has been marked by one kind of cinema, which is ultra-realist social cinema, with basically just three or four recurrent themes. I think we’re a bit tired of there being only this. It’s good that there are these films; it’s good that there are those topics. It’s good that there is this treatment — a strong social cinema with a poignant and relevant theme.
But it’s good if there are other things, too, because we have other stories to tell, as well. We can also explore other genres, others tonalities, and I know that something people often tell me is that we don’t often see comedies coming from this area. There will always be one or two directors doing slightly different things, but they’re very few. The majority is social realist cinema, and I think it’s important for there to be a diversity in what we offer.
I really think that a film also allows for a dialogue with different cultures. When a stranger to my culture watches my film, I offer him an entrance ticket, a singular point of view, an experience, a trip. Something with qualities, colours, tones, textures that are specific to where I’m from, with a gaze that is mine, and a tone that is mine. In that sense, there was this desire to have something new, something fresh that corresponds to me. And I like working with this mix of tonalities, it corresponds to films and directors that I like a lot. I grew up watching the films of Buster Keaton, and I’ve always adored this burlesque humour that isn’t so common. I love the Coen brothers. I love Aki Kaurismäki. So that’s how it came out in my film.
7R: The Unknown Saint is a fable, but it is also a kind of farce about religion and its misuses. How did you balance those two impulses?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: I think it comes from an observation of mine, which is that I think our relationship to the sacred, to belief, to religion, and to money, are not at all in balance. There’s something that has been completely lost in there. It’s not only in my society, but in society in general. Today, all rapports are horizontal instead of vertical. There are lots of transactions in everything, which leads to commerce in every area. Even spirituality has become a business, even religion, and we don’t question the foundations of things anymore as long as it’s there and it works.'When a stranger to my culture watches my film, I offer him a singular point of view, a trip. Something with qualities, colours, textures that are specific to where I'm from, with a gaze and a tone that are mine.' -Alaa Eddine AljemClick To Tweet
But at the same time, we still need to believe in something all together, in order to go on. We need a foundational tale; otherwise we’re just a group of individuals in a geographic space. After a while, we can believe in something so strongly that it becomes a reality, no matter where it comes from. And it’s OK because it allows us to keep going for a while. Until when, we don’t know, but still. This is a sort of illustration of the absurdity of that: the money bag that becomes a sacred place of worship, then begins to generate money on its own. I thought that was very amusing, and that it also could say a lot about our relationship to belief and to money.
7R: The Unknown Saint is very funny, but the characters very rarely laugh at all. How did you work with your actors to work on the tone of the film? The lead actor, Younes Bouab, for example: there is something hard and serious about his expression, but also something kind and trustworthy.
Alaa Eddine Aljem: For the role of the thief, I needed someone who could look like a thug, but who could also quickly become rather beautiful and endearing because the film needed the viewers to have empathy for him quite early on in the story. This actor, in particular, had all the necessary physical traits to play the role.
Regarding our process working with all the actors, we spent a lot of time together, and I explained to them that we were going to be working in a register that would be a little different from what they might be used to or expect: a burlesque register, a mix of tonalites. I told them that, when reading the scenes, they should not try to find what register the scene is in and to then act according to that register. On the contrary: I told them to be neutral all the time.
It’s quite choreographed, in the sense that all the actions have a specific time and duration. There’s a stop, a look, three steps, then another look, then a silence, then another look… It can be very frustrating for some actors, because for many of them, it was their first role in a feature film, and they wanted to act! “I want to cry, to shout, to laugh, can I go far?” And I had to be like, “No, no, no, that won’t work…” Sometimes they spent three, four hours on the set and all they had to do was, “You look, you stand up, you go over there, you come back.” They would do it, and they’d ask, “How was it?” And sometimes I would answer, “Hm, not perfect yet, can you do it a little slower..?” “But it’s just standing up and walking! It’s the same thing!” Two seconds more over here, three seconds less over there, with marks on the floor everywhere, and they had to play in those conditions. So we did rehearsals to coordinate everything.
I’m known for working on very long, cyclical rhythms that repeat themselves. I’d made a short film that was 30 minutes long, and it was basically just bodies walking in the desert. One film that I like a lot and which has profoundly marked me is Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Some people are bored to tears by it, but I adore that kind of cinema. So I made a list of films for the actors to watch. I told them it wouldn’t be a film like those, but I wanted to show that sometimes, you can just move across the space, move your body, play with silences or with an absence of reaction, and that’s acting, too. They were very, very receptive, and a lot of the preparation with the actors consisted of conversations and dialogues, rather than scene rehearsals. After a while, I knew that an actor had understood, that he was listening.'I wanted to show that sometimes, you can just move across the space, move your body, play with silences or with an absence of reaction, and that's acting, too.' -Alaa Eddine AljemClick To Tweet
There was one actor, the guy who plays the doctor (Anas El Baz) whom I really thought had understood it all. But when I saw him after he saw the film for the first time, here at the Cannes premiere, he was a little drunk at the party and he told me, “Listen, when we were shooting the film, I was trusting you, but I hadn’t understood anything. We never shot in order, and I just did what you told me. But now, watching the film, I can make the connections and I understand.” Especially with the older women, they weren’t actors, just people from the village, and so we would do one sentence, then one look, etc. — it was very disjointed.
John Boorman takes a similar approach to blocking actors
“Although actors will tell you that they like to have the opportunity of improvising, what they really like is if you put a chalk mark down and say “Stand there. Hit your mark. And then move to over there. Hit your mark over there.” – John Boorman
7R: I imagine The Unknown Saint is very written, because it is so precise. But did anything change while you were shooting?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: I’m a bit of a maniac about preparations, so the film was very scripted. It took three years to write. And I had travelled everywhere with the script, worked with lots of people on it. During the preparation, we, of course, went scouting for locations. We built practically all the sets — the village, etc. We drew them, then built them, then we made the whole film with pictures: 821 shots, with stand-ins for the actors. Then we rehearsed it all with the actors.'We built practically all the sets, then we made the whole film with pictures: 821 shots, with stand-ins for the actors. Then we rehearsed it all with the actors.' -Alaa Eddine AljemClick To Tweet
But later, when we went to shoot the film, we didn’t bring any of that with us. Not the pictures, not the script, nothing. The idea was, we’ve prepared it so much, now we forget it, and on the set, we’ll see what comes back to us. If we recover what we did, that’s good, but if we don’t, we’ll find something better.
Of course, we knew what scenes we were shooting, what happened in them, the dialogue, etc. But there were movements and interactions that were constructed on set, because they appeared more natural or just felt better. Or there were constraints of weather or light: it was an exterior scene, but we can’t do it because it’s raining, so we’ll switch to something set indoors…
7R: It’s interesting that it rained on set, considering the role of the rain in the film.
Alaa Eddine Aljem: It had never rained in that region for years, and it never rains at the time of year when we shot. But in our six weeks of shooting, we had three weeks of rain. Two days after we shot the scene of the prayer for rain, it started raining, and it didn’t stop for three weeks. One of the actors told me, “See? It works!”
7R: Where was the film shot?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: In a small desert not far from Marrakesh, called Agafay.
7R: Was it complicated to shoot in the desert?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: It was very complicated. I’ve shot there five times. One short in 2008: there was nothing, only the villages that were almost in ruins, no roads, no electricity. I returned two years later, and there was electricity, a few houses that were being rebuilt, but still no road. I returned three years later: the road was beginning, just a path, and electricity, a few houses, and people on mopeds. Four years later, in 2015, there was a road, electricity, lots of mopeds, lots of people.
When we came to shoot the film in 2018, there was an asphalt road, electricity, mopeds, cars, three luxury hotels, quad tours, camel trips, buses of tourists. It was packed, and we had to move away a little in order to shoot the film. I think it will become difficult to shoot in that region in the next few years. In the film, it all looks deserted, but if you panned the camera just a little, you would see a group of German tourists with camels, drinking mint tea. It was a challenge to film this place like a desert as it is becoming less and less deserted.'In the film, it all looks deserted, but if you panned the camera just a little, you would see a group of German tourists with camels, drinking mint tea.' -Alaa Eddine AljemClick To Tweet
7R: This idea of Morocco becoming a tourist destination is touched on at the end of the film, but is it something you want to explore more?
Alaa Eddine Aljem: The entire film is constructed in a suspended, cyclical time. It isn’t defined. We don’t know what year or place it is set in; we just know that we’re in a desert in the South. But we know it’s a little society that is in movement. It subscribes to a rather ancestral community lifestyle. But there is a kind of modernity that is catching up with it, in the sense that it is beginning to have a bit of economic activity and a density of population that leads it to enter a wider network — urban and more modern.
The idea was to observe a micro-society in movement as it was confronted with another way of life knocking on its door — how these two lifestyles can co-exist. It’s a bit like what is happening to the country, in general: like the village, it’s at the crossroads of two lifestyles, one that is more traditional, and a more modern one that arrives in a more brutal way, not thought through or prepared. But at the same time, these are the two ways of life attributed to the realms of belief and of the material; economy and spirituality; the market and the church. And the absurdity of these two worlds when they fight with each other.
7R: The film’s visual style is almost abstract, because there is so little in the frame, due to it being set in a desert. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel clinical. It is quite warm. It leaves some space for the characters to be very human.
Alaa Eddine Aljem: The idea was to have compositions, or backgrounds, and for the characters to move freely within those frames. Instead of the camera catching and attracting the gaze of the viewer, I wanted the bodies and the gazes of the actors to attract the attention of the viewer. So in that sense, the camera practically disappeared: it is fixed from the beginning to the end; there are no camera movements. We removed all possible optical effects and worked almost exclusively with 35mm and 50mm lenses, which are very close to the perception of the human eye, in order to further this feeling of observation. We wanted to put the viewer in an optical position close to what he might see when observing with the naked eye, in terms of perspective and proportions.'I wanted the bodies of the actors, rather than the camera movements, to attract the attention of the viewer. We worked almost exclusively with 35mm and 50mm lenses, which are very close to the perception of the human eye, to further this feeling of observation.' -Alaa Eddine AljemClick To Tweet
This style allowed us to fragment the various spaces, too. It’s a cyclical film, with lots of repetitions, and its humour often comes from these repetitions — it is proper to burlesque comedy. Therefore, we always see the same sets and locations. So we had to divide them up in different spaces and to make it so that we had the sense of observing something that was happening. For example, if there are three shots, you’ll see the actor enter the first, go through the second and third, and when he’s finished his action, the shot sequence goes in reverse: 3-2-1. And as the film progresses, we just reverse the axis: it’s the same set-up, but the viewer feels like something has changed. What has changed is just the gaze. It allowed us to underline the bodies, the gazes, the silences, the movements, which works well with this very wide, very dry landscape and the use of wide shots.