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(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage! Check out M.J. O’Toole’s movie review of The Mother of All LiesSeen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

“Why don’t you allow photos, Grandma?” That’s the first question Asmae El Moudir asks her grandmother Zahra when she tries on her new hearing aid, only to throw it to the floor a second later. This opening scene in El Moudir’s documentary The Mother of All Lies poses a question that confronts a hidden piece of Morocco’s history. Here, she faces the tricky task of investigating a traumatic period that occurred in her neighborhood in Casablanca in the early 1980s. One thing is that she has no photographs, footage, or any other physical evidence which had all been destroyed. Relying on testimony from her family and neighbors, but more significantly a scale model of her district and little figurines made by her father, Asmae El Moudir unpacks a history of trauma surrounding her country that had long been swept under the rug. Through her poetic narration, the director is our guide through this strange, little world she has conjured through art and memory. It is a daring piece of originality from a strong breakout filmmaker that’s full of fury, heartbreak, and reconciliation.

Asmae’s task starts when she asks why there are very few photos in her home, especially none of her. Her domineering and sharp-tongued grandmother, Zahra, the head of her family has forbidden them throughout the years under the pretext of their religion. She even burned those that were taken against her objections. El Moudir’s parents do not dare get in the way of the matriarch and choose to avoid the subject around her for the sake of simplicity. Her grandmother’s protests and intimidation aren’t enough to deter Asmae. If she can’t rely on photos to reconstruct memory, she’ll have to rely on other creative means. She persuades her gentle father Mohamed to put together a scale model of the Casablanca neighborhood she grew up in, which includes dollhouse-like interiors with figurines of their neighbors. Her mother, Ourdia, even takes part in dressing them. It is a stunning creation that feels even more real through its close-ups of the homes, streets, and those who occupied them. It’d be easy to draw comparisons here to Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol. Even though that documentary used scale models and figurines to highlight recovery from trauma, the ones used in The Mother of All Lies play a huge role in uncovering generations of it.

Among the dolls in the neighborhood model are Asmae, her parents, her grandmother, and two other neighbors: Said and Abdalla. The more we get to know these individuals, the more we learn about the neighborhood itself. The film eventually progresses from personal stories and recollections to an observation of a horrifying period in Moroccan history: the 1981 Moroccan Riots (also known as the Casablanca Bread Riots). It was a revolt propelled by an increase in food supplies that would turn into a bloodbath resulting in the deaths of over 600 people at the hands of police and military units. This happened just before Asmae was born. Some were killed in the streets, like teenage local Fatima, while many others (even those who didn’t even take part in the riots) were inhumanely imprisoned and tortured by an oppressive regime. Many families, such as Fatima’s, never recovered their bodies as they were taken away by the authorities to remove any trace of the events. They only have photographs as proof that they ever existed. “Fatima became a memory with no body,” the director narrates while also calling herself “a body with no memory.” The model reenactment of the massacre itself is chilling with its use of practical and sound effects. What starts as a documentation of the director’s family’s past turns into a spotlight on a grave injustice that has caused generations of repressed pain. 

Through the subjects’ interactions with their doll counterparts, they finally address the past no matter how painful it may truly be for some of them to relive it. Some might even consider it a form of therapy. El Moudir takes a unique approach in her filmmaking that exposes realities while also recreating the past. Like the director in her journey, the film enlightens us as to how the past can help us understand the present more. From testimonies and reenactments, it is a devastating watch. But there is also joy, playfulness, and by the film’s conclusion, a somewhat bigger sense of togetherness for both a family and community. In The Mother of All Lies, Asmae El Moudir’s journey to discover her family’s past marks the beginning of an audacious and innovative new voice in documentary cinema.

– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)

2023 Toronto Film Festival; Asmae El Moudir ; The Mother of All Lies documentary movie review

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