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Sean Gullette: Punked Out in Morocco - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Sean Gullette of Traitors

Sean Gullette of Traitors

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Fans of Darren Aronofsky films will know Sean Gullette as the co-writer and lead actor of his 1998 hit indie psychological thriller Pi. Despite his numerous supporting roles since then, including in Aronosfky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Gullette said that soon afterwards he began “fading into obscurity” as an actor. These days, his main focus is behind the camera.

His first feature film, Traitors (2013), set in Morocco—and, unusually for an English speaking director, is in colloquial Moroccan Arabic and French—has already done the film festival rounds, including Cannes, to vigorous nods of approval. Last month it had its UK premier at London’s Safar Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. This is where Asharq Al-Awsat caught up with the Boston-born director, just as he was ordering a plate of hummus at the bar.

Gullette, who moved to Morocco “for love” seven years ago and currently lives in Tangiers with his wife, French-born Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, and their two young daughters, is now a seasoned Moroccophile.

The Harvard graduate’s feature-length directorial debut explores Morocco’s youth scene and hashish subculture through the exploits of its central character Malika—a homely girl from Tangiers and lead singer in an all-girl punk rock band. Gullette confessed the character is “sometimes total science fiction,” but at the same time, is someone whose “double life . . . is probably familiar to other kids.”

A scene from Traitors, 2013 (Sean Gullette)

A scene from Traitors, 2013 (Sean Gullette)


Using punk rock as a storytelling vehicle was “entirely the Westerner imposing his cultural values on the Arab world,” Gullette said, admitting that in Morocco, rap was more prevalent than punk rock as a way to express social grievances among the youth. But the artistic license was also a nod to his own experiences growing up in Boston in the early 1980s. “I [drove around] in a sh***y Honda, listening to The Clash, and soon thereafter became a politicized teenager through being exposed to a bunch of Vietnam veterans among other things,” he said.

Malika, who contradicts the usual portrayals of Moroccan women in film, is a tomboy teenager sporting an anime-style black bob. But her band’s lyrics, Gullette said, “[confront] the questions that everyone in the working class and everybody in the developing world is confronting—corruption, patriarchy, respect, the future, what it is to be home, what it is to go away.”

Casting Malika, said Gullette, “this creature that came out of my adolescent imagination,” was a challenge. But he found his leading lady, previously unknown actress Chaimae Ben Acha, through a tip-off from the projectionist on his team. Despite “[Ben Acha being] a very straight girl” he said he knew she was right for the role in an instant. “[He] said there’s a girl in my acting class . . . and we were already making arrangements by the end of her audition.”

Traitors was initially shot as a short film in 2010. It was later turned into a feature “just out of a desire to see Malika on a bigger stage and [to see] what she would do if she was confronted by a really big opponent like the bad guys,” Gullette said.

In Traitors, Malika’s band is spotted by a producer who offers to record their album and arrange a tour, on condition they provide the initial funding. It turns out that Malika, recently sacked from her call-center job, also needs money to help her overworked and stressed parents, who are close to eviction from their apartment over unpaid bills. The subtext is Morocco’s societal frustrations, but also the sometimes unfair discrepancies between the sexes—Malika’s mother works overtime and secretly carries the major load of the family’s financial burdens, while her father still has the time to play board games in Morocco’s male-dominated cafés.

After meeting a local drug dealer at her father’s garage, Malika gives in to his persuasiveness to make a run to the mountains for hashish in return for a big payoff. “This is when things get complicated,” Gullette said. Here she meets Amal, a very different character to Malika, played by Soufia Issami (Sur La Planche, 2011) whom Gullette describes as “deep in that culture . . . the cannabis story [that is] deeply inscribed in the story of Morocco.”

Issami, according to Gullette, is funny and has her own culture. “She’s got a PhD from the school of hard knocks,” he said.

Filming on the Rif Mountains, where half of Europe’s cannabis is grown and “the transit point of all this hashish,” isn’t easy, by Gullette’s own assertions. “It’s a place where nobody can shoot . . . unless you know the right people,” he said. Luckily for him and his production team, they did. Unusually, they “got a wonderfully warm Rif mountain welcome.”

As an American director, Gullette said he initially “didn’t feel at all ready” to make a film with Moroccan characters. But through his wife Barrada’s Cinémathèque de Tanger, a non-profit cinema cultural center in Tangiers, and his involvement in the supporting 212 Society, “a small tool for fundraising projects,” he got to know the “working people of Tangier.” Having a “battered Range Rover” he also befriended several mechanics and said he “began to understand the culture . . . and have a really deep appreciation and fondness [for it].”

The director praises Morocco highly, describing it as “the country of the open smile and the outstretched hand”—in particular his home town of seven years: “Tangerines are almost childlike in their sweetness, in their openness and their willingness to dialogue,” said Gullette, who added that filming in the region was subsequently “a wonderful environment . . . In Tangier, they’re so kind; if you ask can I just run an extension cord through your front window they’re like, sure, yeah of course, do you want tea?”

He said that “one of the big unintended consequences” of the Cinémathèque de Tanger, was the cinema’s on-site Café. “In many cities in the Arab world the cafés are not for everyone, especially women, progressive kids, gay kids . . . the café became full of teenagers, kind of the cool kids of Tangier. It’s a very small town that has a lot of cultural offering. In fact it was abandoned by culture.”

Gullette also noticed something else about this social gathering: “[There were] kids wearing jean jackets, smoking cigarettes, using our Internet, holding hands under the table. In this country that has been a deep underlying need for social change . . . there is everything for people to be motivated, exasperated, fed up, pi**ed off, punked out right? Speaking truth to power.” But, he added: “Instead, these kids [were] just floating along in a life of sleep.”

Gullette would later stand corrected after a screening of the Traitors at the Cinémathèque on February 20, 2011. “It was the name for the social justice movement in Morocco . . . it was the night that punk broke in Morocco, cars on fire etcetera . . . it turns out I was wrong; that energy was always there, it was always latent under the surface,” Gulllette said, adding that Malika’s character was an unintended precursor to this movement.

Gullette is positive about Morocco’s current internal film scene. “It’s starting to happen little by little,” he said, praising in particular Nabil Ayouch (Horses of God, 2012) and his brother Hicham Ayouch, for making “challenging unconventional films.” Despite Morocco’s advancing film arena, however, there is still the difficulty of getting the actors over to Europe for the film festivals. “Some of the Schengen countries are not as easy as they should be with visiting artists from the Maghreb,” Gullette complained. “In Cannes, a few [of the cast of Traitors] were stopped at the airport, even though they had visas.”

Traitors was produced on a small budget, which Gullette said had its pros and cons. “You’re shooting in the real world . . .reality backhands you with all sorts of difficulties and hardships, and then it gives you presents of the unexpected. We love working that way,” he said.

His next film, Tangier—currently in the financing and casting stage and set to star Kristin Scott Thomas and Jeremy Irons—is going to be “a very different animal,” he said. The international thriller with a political subtext set in 2004 “requires much more control between frames in some cases.” Though the director added: “I’ll remember the lessons of real cinema no matter what scale I might be lucky to work at. There’s stuff there that would be foolish not to retain.”