Mohamed El Aboudi

Bringing the voiceless to the foreground.

As she walks back home from the supermarket, an old lady smiles at Mohamed El Aboudi. Like her, many other people from the area readily recognise the filmmaker, who has lived in the same neighbourhood in Espoo for ten years already.

El Aboudi is original from Morocco, where he attained a Bachelor Degree in Theatre at Fez University in 1988. He then moved to France and undertook filmmaking studies at la Sorbonne, after which he visited Finland for the first time in 1991, studying at the University of Helsinki for two years. He later moved to Australia to follow a Master’s Programme in Film and Television at Bond University, where he graduated in 1996. After living in France for some time, the film director returned to Finland in 2001 and has resided in the country ever since. He worked in YLE for six years and then started to work as a freelancer in 2007.

When El Aboudi moved into his current house, he was one of the few immigrants living in the area – he even ventures to say that he was the only one. Nowadays, the sight of a foreigner is common all over Finland. However, immigration and discrimination issues remain unresolved worldwide, Finland included, says the filmmaker.

As a matter of fact, Häätanssi* (English title: “Dance of Outlaws”), the most recent production by El Aboudi, deals with these issues. The documentary film, which relates the story Hind, a Moroccan woman who is an outcast in her own society, was awarded in March at the Tampere Film Festival 2013.

How did you get the news about the prize?

Well, we have been travelling with the film around the world, and it was actually awarded internationally last summer at the Locarno International Film Festival and at the Festival National du Film at Tangier. We have also showed it in Finland at many festivals but it really took me by surprise to receive this prize. First of all, because we were participating in the national category and we were competing with very good Finnish films. Plus, the story, the director and the language of the film were foreign. Actually, when I was asked by the festival organisers when I would come [to Tampere], I told them that I would go only to present the film and that was it. When I was already back home, I got a call from one of the organisers, asking me to go back to Tampere. My first thought was that perhaps they need me for some press conference or just some meeting, but then they said they needed me for the award ceremony. That sounded promising.

When I received the prize, I was planning to dedicate it to all the women who are suffering around the world, especially when we had just celebrated the International Women’s Day. I also thought of the main character of my film, who at this moment is unfortunately in prison and nobody knows why. But as I stood there, I became overwhelmed by emotion and just remained speechless.

What is the film about?

The film tells the story of Hind, a woman who was raped by her employer when she was 15 years old. Because of this, she was kicked from her house for bringing ‘shame to family’. Hind started to live as an outlaw because she had no relatives, no friends, no one to turn to. And also, when you are kicked from your house, you are not allowed to get an identity card. The only occupation she has left to perform is to be a wedding dancer and a prostitute. The film relates the challenges and hopes of Hind to get her documentation in order and to start a new life.

How do you think this film relates to Finnish reality?

Of course the story develops in Morocco, but this is not only a Moroccan story. This film is about every woman that is suffering in the world. There are women all over the world suffering from daily domestic violence and social injustice, and this happens also in Finland, of course.

Have you screened the film in Morocco?

I have to be sincere: I was concerned about showing the film in Morocco. But somehow the film ended up in the Festival National du Film in Tangier this February – it got there by accident, I don’t know how. Yet, the audience was actually fabulous about it, the public really connected with the film. It was also screened in some other festivals in the country and women’s rights associations. Of course, my dream would be to release the film in cinemas in Morocco, but I think that would be really tough to attain.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m already working on the preproduction of a new film. It will deal with how so many years of dictatorship have affected the lives of individuals from countries where the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has happened. Can you take from those people 30 years living under an authoritarian regime? I think those generations will have to deal forever with the consequences of living such a trauma. And so, my next production will most likely focus on the lives of a family who was stranded all over the world as a consequence of the dictatorship years in Egypt.

You don’t seem very optimistic about the Arab spring.

When the documentary was shown in the Tangier film festival, I was approached by a Tunisian film critic who asked me, “Do you miss not having the Arab Spring in Morocco?” My answer was that if it would happen the same way that it had occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, I’d prefer it to wait for a while. I think that more than a spring, what is happening in those countries is more of a ‘dark winter’, as they are trying to drag the society 100 years back into the past, and that’s terrible. Of course, in the long term it will be good, because this phase will be over and people will understand that those who want to go in that anachronistic direction are just promoting rubbish.

Regarding your working life in Finland, how is it to be a foreign filmmaker in this country?

Being a filmmaker in Finland is already hard, no matter if you are a foreigner, but already as a Finn. I understand that there are about 150 people graduating every year from different film schools. In a small country like this one, where there’s also a small budget, that means that the competition is going to be really tough. But, of course, when you are actually able to work doing something you studied for and aimed at all your life, then it is worth it. And, especially as a foreigner, the pleasure is double.

As a final point, do you think foreign filmmakers feel some kind of a moral pressure to deal with social problems in their productions?

In my own case, I make films that I can relate to, with themes that I can say, ‘Okay, this subject touches me and I want to work on it’. Because, if you work on something that you don’t identify with, then your final product will be just ‘normal’, not as good as it could be. I particularly like the themes that are ‘over the fences’, those issues that are ‘forbidden’. You know, forbidden fruits are delicious, but you also have to be able to reach them. Sometimes there is a really interesting theme, but it is out of grasp. Yet sometimes there are very close to you. I remember when I was working at YLE, they asked me to do something about immigrant workers who do manual jobs, like cleaning or construction. After some thinking, I said to myself, ‘Why am I’m trying to go far from my own environment? In YLE we have also people who come to clean there, why not do something about them?’ Then I made a short film of three-and-a-half minutes about three guys from Africa, Germany and Thailand working at the broadcaster. The producers at YLE were concerned in the beginning; they thought I had gone mad, and was going to bite the hand that fed me. But eventually they realised it was a positive thing and actually ended up showing the film all over the world in panels about multiculturalism and immigration.

* Literal translation from Finnish is “Wedding dance”.

Héctor Montes