'There's a Place for Gays in Islam'

Morocco's only openly gay filmmaker discusses the inspirations behind Salvation Army and his home country's changing attitudes toward homosexuality.
AP / Domenico Stinellis

In an edition of the Venice Film Festival notable for the prevalence of works grappling with global and societal woes (unemployment, terrorism, pollution, war) perhaps no film has blended the personal and the political as strikingly as Abdellah Taia’s L’Armée du salut (Salvation Army).

A promising directorial debut presented in the independent “Critics’ Week” category on Wednesday, the movie is adapted from Taia’s autobiographical novel about growing up gay in Morocco.

Today, the 40-year-old Taia is the only openly homosexual Moroccan writer-filmmaker. He is based in Paris, where he moved in 2000 to pursue a graduate degree in 18th century French literature.

Salvation Army observes the adolescent protagonist’s sexual awakening, as he meets with men in shadowy alleys and empty lots, careful not to be discovered in a country where homosexuality is a crime punishable by prison time.

The film’s final section finds Abdellah living in Switzerland 10 years later, free from the severe restrictions of Moroccan society, but nostalgic for his native land.

I sat down with Taia for an interview about his film, his life, and his views on homosexuality, Islam, Morocco and France. Here are some highlights.

Are you hoping that Salvation Army will be released in Morocco?

More than hoping—I really want it to be released in Morocco. Before shooting, I submitted the screenplay in its original form to the authorities at the National Centre for Moroccan Cinema. I didn't cut anything. I didn't want to sugarcoat things in order to get the green light to shoot. They approved the screenplay, and I hope they end up following through by allowing the film to be released.

I know a lot of people will be shocked when they see the film. But I don’t see anything shocking in it, because it portrays a reality. I’m not the only person to have lived this reality, nor am I the only one who sees it.

You’re known as a novelist, and this is your first film. What inspired you to make the movie?

Cinema has been an obsession of mine for a long time. Ever since my adolescence, I’ve had this dream [of making movies], which came from my love of Egyptian cinema. That was the only culture that we had access to in Morocco, as a poor family. Egyptian films were the only ones on Moroccan television. They taught us a lot about love, about society, about ourselves. And as a homosexual, they pretty much saved me, because they allowed me to escape to this whole other world.

There are also films and filmmakers that inspired me, but that I didn't discover until I was an adult: Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy; the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for its dark romanticism, its taste for melodrama, its critique of World War II-era Germany and its subversive, but tender, portrait of homosexuality; and Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, which directly influenced Salvation Army.

Presented by

Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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