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Film-maker Fyzal Boulifa: ‘I need to engage with my country in this strange time of identity crisis’ | Film

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Fyzal Boulifa and I arrive together at his film distributor’s offices, to a boisterous welcome from a pair of French bulldogs. He stoically endures their enthusiasm while confiding under his breath that he is actually terrified of dogs. It seems an apt introduction to a director who spent more than a decade in the shadows, painstakingly teaching himself how to direct short films, before two of them burst into the sunlight with wins at the Cannes film festival.

It was immediately clear that he was something special. The Curse, his 2012 short, which was nominated for a Bafta, is a jewel-like fable of a young Moroccan woman persecuted by children who spot her consorting with a man outside a remote desert settlement. Rate Me (2015) is a portrait of a teenage escort as seen through 12 online user reviews.

News that his first full-length feature was a social-realist story about two working-class women from Essex met with some puzzlement: what could a gay British Moroccan, who grew up in Leicester and was at the time living in Paris, have to say about the disastrous frenmity between two impoverished young mothers? Quite a lot, it turned out, from the five-star reviews that greeted Lynn + Lucy in 2020.

“Of course, for me, it was not surprising,” says Boulifa, a quietly-spoken 38-year-old. “I grew up in a very white working-class neighbourhood, so that kind of environment – that decay – has always interested me. But, yeah, people were very surprised, and I think that speaks a lot to our times and the way we perceive identity.”

Four years later, he is back with a second feature, The Damned Don’t Cry, that draws the strands together, at the same time as offering something entirely itself: it is a beautifully shot story of a mother and son whose life of penury in Morocco pulls them both into lives of exploitation. For all that teenager Selim and his mother sleep spooned together on a single mattress like an old married couple, they are separated by shame. Hers is how her son came to be born, which has rendered her an untouchable in their conservative community; Selim’s is what he has to do to survive in a society riven by post-colonial hypocrisies.

Moroccan unknowns Aicha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji, star as mother and son in Boulifa’s new film, The Damned Don’t Cry

The idea came from observing a mother and son from his extended family back in Morocco, Boulifa explains. The mother had alienated her relatives by having a child outside marriage; in the absence of a secure income, her son started working in a garage at six or seven, and gradually started taking on the role of the husband. “I wasn’t interested in diagnosing the social ill,” he says, “but there was something poetic and very touching about the way the relationship was twisted: it was so full of love that would sometimes express itself in the most violent ways. That kind of push and pull really interested me.”

Boulifa is close to his own mother, whose story about a youthful misadventure in her own conservative community inspired his short The Curse. “She didn’t really go to school, she was working as a maid when she was 11 or 12. So she had a very different path from me, who was born in Leicester,” he says. His parents emigrated to the UK at a time when it was possible to get work as nursing assistants without being qualified, he says. “And then they had an ice-cream van, so they were working as nurses at night and selling ice-creams by day, which could be a very dark scenario.” Because he never saw them? “No, because it was very embarrassing as a child to have parents who ran an ice-cream van.”.

His interest in international film was sparked by watching late-night movies on Channel 4 and by the videos his older brother brought home. At 17, he dropped out of school and left home to seek his fortune in the capital, where he enrolled to study the subject at the London College of Communication. But he jacked that in, too, after three months, because “it didn’t seem serious. I just wasn’t very happy in institutions generally”.

Instead, he took the DIY route, making short films “on a trial and error basis,” in an era when there was development funding targeted at film-makers from the regions and from ethnic minorities. Only the last two are worth watching, he says. “It was quite reckless really. There was this element of, ‘this is the only thing that I can do. So it has to work.’ There’s no choice. That gave me the persistence, just to carry on, though it’s still very precarious in many ways.”

He has made a speciality of working with untrained actors, winning rave reviews for Roxanne Scrimshaw’s screen debut in Lynn + Lucy, and following up with performances from Moroccan unknowns Aicha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji, as mother and son in The Damned Don’t Cry, that are immensely moving without being sentimental.

Roxanne Scrimshaw and Nichola Burley in Lynn + Lucy.
Roxanne Scrimshaw and Nichola Burley in Lynn + Lucy.

Boulifa borrowed the film’s title from a 1950 crime-drama starring his screen idol, Joan Crawford, as a mother who abandons her previous life after the death of her son. “She becomes a cigarette vendor, then a shop girl, then a gangster’s moll. There’s this kind of dignity in her persistence and her refusal to sentimentalise herself. I’ve always been drawn to those sorts of people.”

In his late 20s, he moved to Paris, partly because old colonial links with France made it easier to get financing to film in Morocco. “It’s extremely striking, that if you spend time in Morocco, people are second-class citizens in their own country,” he says. “It’s really quite incredible, coming from this colonial history. Rabat [the capital] has a big and powerful bourgeoisie that is very sophisticated and French in its culture and manners. Of course, there’s a racial element to it, but I think it’s to do with class more than anything, and the Morocco my parents came from, and that I know, is working class.”

Boulifa’s preoccupation with people surviving deprivation and oppression makes him a natural heir to one of his film-making heroes, Alan Clarke. “When people say that my first and second films are so different from each other, all I can reply is that this says a lot about the times we live in, where we can’t really talk about class. I think actually, there’s an active suppression of people talking about it.”

For a film-maker working outside the European mainstream, he adds, this failure to recognise the importance of class is further complicated by a patronising post-colonialism. “Films that do well at festivals often put in opposition traditionalism and freedom: characters are shackled by the traditionalism of their own country and liberate themselves by embracing a western style of individualism. The more arthouse the films are, the more it happens. I didn’t want a very simple opposition between traditionalism, which usually means religion, and liberty.”

Boulifa’s mother, who has now moved to live with his sister in Cambridge, is a very devout Muslim. “She believes in the afterlife, in heaven and hell, and, you know, being judged.” There is a strong gay storyline in the film. Has she seen it? No, he says, but she will, and he’s warned her about the sex scenes. “We completely disagree, but at the same time her love is never in doubt for a second.”

His appreciation of such nuances of social accommodation is central to his originality as a film-maker. “One of the things that we find increasingly hard in the western world is to be able to live with contradiction,” he says. “We want things to be absolute: accepting means bowing to my beliefs and speaking my language. But coming from a Moroccan family, this idea is very alien. I don’t hide anything, and it can be a bit combative, but I think that’s fine.”

He has recently moved back to live on his own in a flat in south London, where he spends his downtime reading “way too many books at the same time”. He’s currently making his way through Anna Karenina for the first time, but is simultaneously hoovering up the ideas of philosopher René Girard (“his thoughts about group dynamics and sacrifice are fascinating”) and sociologist Eva Illouz (“brilliant on the intersection of romance and capitalism”).

After seven years away, he really notices the changes. “There’s a kind of brutality to London that I wasn’t as sensitive to before. It has an impersonal quality that Paris doesn’t have. You can definitely also feel the difference in terms of where the British situate culture in the hierarchy of what’s important. It’s complicated, of course, but from a British point of view, the French defence of culture, and the position they accord it, seems very admirable.”

Hard as it was to tear himself away from France, he says, “It’s important for me to engage with my country in this strange time of identity crisis we’re living through. I think the UK is probably quite ripe for film-makers like me.” I’m sure he’s right.


Fyzal Boulifa and I arrive together at his film distributor’s offices, to a boisterous welcome from a pair of French bulldogs. He stoically endures their enthusiasm while confiding under his breath that he is actually terrified of dogs. It seems an apt introduction to a director who spent more than a decade in the shadows, painstakingly teaching himself how to direct short films, before two of them burst into the sunlight with wins at the Cannes film festival.

It was immediately clear that he was something special. The Curse, his 2012 short, which was nominated for a Bafta, is a jewel-like fable of a young Moroccan woman persecuted by children who spot her consorting with a man outside a remote desert settlement. Rate Me (2015) is a portrait of a teenage escort as seen through 12 online user reviews.

News that his first full-length feature was a social-realist story about two working-class women from Essex met with some puzzlement: what could a gay British Moroccan, who grew up in Leicester and was at the time living in Paris, have to say about the disastrous frenmity between two impoverished young mothers? Quite a lot, it turned out, from the five-star reviews that greeted Lynn + Lucy in 2020.

“Of course, for me, it was not surprising,” says Boulifa, a quietly-spoken 38-year-old. “I grew up in a very white working-class neighbourhood, so that kind of environment – that decay – has always interested me. But, yeah, people were very surprised, and I think that speaks a lot to our times and the way we perceive identity.”

Four years later, he is back with a second feature, The Damned Don’t Cry, that draws the strands together, at the same time as offering something entirely itself: it is a beautifully shot story of a mother and son whose life of penury in Morocco pulls them both into lives of exploitation. For all that teenager Selim and his mother sleep spooned together on a single mattress like an old married couple, they are separated by shame. Hers is how her son came to be born, which has rendered her an untouchable in their conservative community; Selim’s is what he has to do to survive in a society riven by post-colonial hypocrisies.

Aicha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji as mother and son walk down a market street carrying large bags in a still from The Damned Don’t Cry
Moroccan unknowns Aicha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji, star as mother and son in Boulifa’s new film, The Damned Don’t Cry

The idea came from observing a mother and son from his extended family back in Morocco, Boulifa explains. The mother had alienated her relatives by having a child outside marriage; in the absence of a secure income, her son started working in a garage at six or seven, and gradually started taking on the role of the husband. “I wasn’t interested in diagnosing the social ill,” he says, “but there was something poetic and very touching about the way the relationship was twisted: it was so full of love that would sometimes express itself in the most violent ways. That kind of push and pull really interested me.”

Boulifa is close to his own mother, whose story about a youthful misadventure in her own conservative community inspired his short The Curse. “She didn’t really go to school, she was working as a maid when she was 11 or 12. So she had a very different path from me, who was born in Leicester,” he says. His parents emigrated to the UK at a time when it was possible to get work as nursing assistants without being qualified, he says. “And then they had an ice-cream van, so they were working as nurses at night and selling ice-creams by day, which could be a very dark scenario.” Because he never saw them? “No, because it was very embarrassing as a child to have parents who ran an ice-cream van.”.

His interest in international film was sparked by watching late-night movies on Channel 4 and by the videos his older brother brought home. At 17, he dropped out of school and left home to seek his fortune in the capital, where he enrolled to study the subject at the London College of Communication. But he jacked that in, too, after three months, because “it didn’t seem serious. I just wasn’t very happy in institutions generally”.

Instead, he took the DIY route, making short films “on a trial and error basis,” in an era when there was development funding targeted at film-makers from the regions and from ethnic minorities. Only the last two are worth watching, he says. “It was quite reckless really. There was this element of, ‘this is the only thing that I can do. So it has to work.’ There’s no choice. That gave me the persistence, just to carry on, though it’s still very precarious in many ways.”

He has made a speciality of working with untrained actors, winning rave reviews for Roxanne Scrimshaw’s screen debut in Lynn + Lucy, and following up with performances from Moroccan unknowns Aicha Tebbae and Abdellah El Hajjouji, as mother and son in The Damned Don’t Cry, that are immensely moving without being sentimental.

Roxanne Scrimshaw and Nichola Burley in Lynn + Lucy.
Roxanne Scrimshaw and Nichola Burley in Lynn + Lucy.

Boulifa borrowed the film’s title from a 1950 crime-drama starring his screen idol, Joan Crawford, as a mother who abandons her previous life after the death of her son. “She becomes a cigarette vendor, then a shop girl, then a gangster’s moll. There’s this kind of dignity in her persistence and her refusal to sentimentalise herself. I’ve always been drawn to those sorts of people.”

In his late 20s, he moved to Paris, partly because old colonial links with France made it easier to get financing to film in Morocco. “It’s extremely striking, that if you spend time in Morocco, people are second-class citizens in their own country,” he says. “It’s really quite incredible, coming from this colonial history. Rabat [the capital] has a big and powerful bourgeoisie that is very sophisticated and French in its culture and manners. Of course, there’s a racial element to it, but I think it’s to do with class more than anything, and the Morocco my parents came from, and that I know, is working class.”

Boulifa’s preoccupation with people surviving deprivation and oppression makes him a natural heir to one of his film-making heroes, Alan Clarke. “When people say that my first and second films are so different from each other, all I can reply is that this says a lot about the times we live in, where we can’t really talk about class. I think actually, there’s an active suppression of people talking about it.”

For a film-maker working outside the European mainstream, he adds, this failure to recognise the importance of class is further complicated by a patronising post-colonialism. “Films that do well at festivals often put in opposition traditionalism and freedom: characters are shackled by the traditionalism of their own country and liberate themselves by embracing a western style of individualism. The more arthouse the films are, the more it happens. I didn’t want a very simple opposition between traditionalism, which usually means religion, and liberty.”

Boulifa’s mother, who has now moved to live with his sister in Cambridge, is a very devout Muslim. “She believes in the afterlife, in heaven and hell, and, you know, being judged.” There is a strong gay storyline in the film. Has she seen it? No, he says, but she will, and he’s warned her about the sex scenes. “We completely disagree, but at the same time her love is never in doubt for a second.”

His appreciation of such nuances of social accommodation is central to his originality as a film-maker. “One of the things that we find increasingly hard in the western world is to be able to live with contradiction,” he says. “We want things to be absolute: accepting means bowing to my beliefs and speaking my language. But coming from a Moroccan family, this idea is very alien. I don’t hide anything, and it can be a bit combative, but I think that’s fine.”

He has recently moved back to live on his own in a flat in south London, where he spends his downtime reading “way too many books at the same time”. He’s currently making his way through Anna Karenina for the first time, but is simultaneously hoovering up the ideas of philosopher René Girard (“his thoughts about group dynamics and sacrifice are fascinating”) and sociologist Eva Illouz (“brilliant on the intersection of romance and capitalism”).

After seven years away, he really notices the changes. “There’s a kind of brutality to London that I wasn’t as sensitive to before. It has an impersonal quality that Paris doesn’t have. You can definitely also feel the difference in terms of where the British situate culture in the hierarchy of what’s important. It’s complicated, of course, but from a British point of view, the French defence of culture, and the position they accord it, seems very admirable.”

Hard as it was to tear himself away from France, he says, “It’s important for me to engage with my country in this strange time of identity crisis we’re living through. I think the UK is probably quite ripe for film-makers like me.” I’m sure he’s right.

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