Film Notes: Horses of God Original title: Les chevaux de Dieu (2012) directed by Nabil Ayouch

MA-FR-BE /115 minutes / colour / Ali’n Productions, Les Films du Nouveau Monde, Stone Angels, YC Alligator Film and Artémis Productions Dir: Nabil Ayouch Pro: Nabil Ayouch, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, Eric Van Beuren and Patrick Quinet Scr: written by Jamal Belmahi, based on the novel ‘Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen’ by Mahi Binebine Cine: Hichame Alaouie Film Editor: Damien Keyeux Sound: Zacharie Naciri and Eric Lesachet Mus: Malvina Meinier Cast: Abdelhakim Rachid (Yachine), Abdelilah Rachid (Hamid), Hamza Souidek (Nabil) and Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani (Fouad) Release Date (Spain) 3 July 2015. Spanish title: Los caballos de Dios.


Yachine is 10 years old, he lives with his family in the slum of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca. His mother,Yemma, leads the family as best as she can. His father suffers from depression, one of his brothers is in the army, another is almost autistic and the third, Hamid, 13, is the boss of the local neighbourhood and Yachine’s protector. When Hamid is sent to jail, Yachine takes up jobs after jobs, though empty, to get free from the doldrums of violence, misery and drugs. Released from prison, Hamid, now an Islamic fundamentalist, persuades Yachine and his pals to join their ‘brothers’. The Imam, Abou Zoubeir, their spiritual leader, starts to direct their long-standing physical and mental preparation. One day, he tells them they have been chosen to become martyrs. The film is inspired by the terrorist attacks of May 16th 2003 in Casablanca.

In a summer scarce of good films in Madrid theatres, Begoña and I went to see yesterday Les chevaux de Dieu directed by Nabil Ayouch. The story is inspired by the terrorist attacks of 16 May 2003 in Casablanca and the scrip is based on the novel ‘The Stars of Sidi Moumen’, by Moroccan writer Mahi Binebine. The film won awards in film festivals in Rotterdam, Namur, Bruxelles, Valladolid, Doha, Besançon, Montpellier, but not in its own country, in the Marrakech film festival when it was in competition in February 2013. It  was selected as the Moroccan entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. Les chevaux de Dieu received two nominations at the 4th Magritte Awards, winning Best Cinematography for Hichame Alaouié. Les chevaux de Dieu provides a great deal of food for thought and is, in my view, a courageous and honest movie, filmed with effectiveness and without concessions, that touches an extremely sensitive subject, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Maybe it’s not an extraordinary movie, there are some scenes that seemed to me in some way unnecessary and I felt that occasionally it is a bit uneven. None the less it is certainly a film of interest to try to understand our world of today.

Engrossing, realistic study of a Moroccan slum and how it becomes a breeding ground for young terrorists. (The Hollywood Reporter, read full review here)

An interview with Nabil Ayouch

How did your film HORSES OF GOD, based on the story of the young Moroccans who committed kamikaze bombings in 2003, come about?

First off, it comes from my own personal experience with the shanty town of Sidi Moumen, the neighbourhood of the young kamikazes who committed the Casablanca bombings in 2003. I had already shot a few scenes in the area for my 1999 film ALI ZAOUA. So it was someplace I’d had ample opportunity to explore and I felt perfectly comfortable there. It also boasts the surprising distinction of being Casablanca’s highest suburb. I remembered the people from the quarter being really pacifist and really open. So when the events of 2003 took place, I just didn’t get it. Fourteen kids from Sidi Moumen blowing themselves up. You say “No, it can’t be!” It was hugely traumatic for Morocco, because people expect this kind of act to be the work of trained terrorists hailing from Afghanistan or Iraq, but not for the perpetrators to be kids who until then had never left their slum. Most of them were twenty. It was so shocking that immediately I felt the need to react, to do something about it. Except that I didn’t do what I should have!

Which was…?

I took a camera and a team and went to meet the victims. I listened to the survivors, to their families. I did a short 16-minute film. But that was all. It took me a while to realize my vision was incomplete. It was about three or four years before I really came back to it. First because I realized that as film directors, we are not really witnesses with a duty to respond immediately like journalists. Our duty is first and foremost to stand back from events in order to construct a particular way of looking at things, our own way. It’s also the time I needed to understand my feeling of frustration, to understand that the victims were on both sides.

So then what did you do?

I went back to Sidi Moumen. The work I did was almost anthropological. I talked to people. I met with associations, because in the meantime, obviously, a large number of associations had sprung up in the quarter in response to the bombings. Then I bought the rights for an adaptation of Mahi Binedine’s book entitled “Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen” (“The Stars of Sidi Moumen”), whose approach was exactly that of the story I wanted to tell.

Did you then go shoot your film in Sidi Moumen?

No, although for a long time I had planned to shoot right in the middle of Sidi Moumen. But the area has changed a lot, like with the construction of a huge block of apartment buildings. The pocket of slum where the kamikazes were from was shrinking. In terms of the camera’s point of view, it was becoming impossible to film. It no longer made sense to shoot there, everything had changed so much.


I needed to capture the Sidi Moumen that gave rise to this generation of kamikazes in terms of their relationship to their neighbourhood; a Sidi Moumen removed from the modern world, a rural shanty town, removed from any notion of urbanism. So I decided to shoot in another shanty town a few kilometres away. I worked, however, with a lot of inhabitants of Sidi Moumen.

Was it difficult to get a film on such a touchy subject off the ground? For instance, did you meet with defiance on the part of Moroccan authorities?

I met with a lot of defiance regarding the subject, at different levels, but never from the Moroccan government. I even received a grant for the project. Similarly, we immediately got authorization to shoot. On the other hand, each time we had to explain in great detail how we planned to approach the subject which, again, was hugely traumatic for Moroccans. Some people questioned whether the wound should really be reopened at all. So there was understandable reluctance, but never any blockage or censorship.

Has the Arab Spring, which occurred while you were in the middle of your film, had any influence on it?

The first effect of the Arab Spring was that the authorities no doubt weren’t too preoccupied with us, we were pretty much left on our own. That was the first real effect. The second, however, was that there was a certain tangible tension in the streets, especially in the working class neighbourhoods where we were shooting. We had to keep our heads down if we didn’t want to give the impression of some kind of provocation. Everybody was on edge. There were demonstrations daily. Islamist currents, encouraged by what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia, were coming out in the open. With elections coming up, several people involved in Islamist movements in the quarter tried to stop the shoot.

You were immersed in Morocco’s political climate and yet you chose an intimate approach to this true story. Why?

For multiple reasons including the desire to get viewers immediately involved with the film’s characters. The main characters, the kamikazes, are kids who are not the only ones responsible for their acts, they are victims of them. I wanted to get that across. I needed to start the film like a chronicle and not jump immediately in with a distant historical panorama. What I wanted above all to convey was the everyday life of these kids, their environment, their parents, the lack of paternity, the strong bond between them and all of the micro traumas of life that make that at some point or another, it all transforms, as they grow up, into desperate, unbearable resentment. Their small stories forge their destiny and turn them into part of history, that of national and global geopolitics.

What are the key points you relied on to develop your story?

The lack of access to education for these kids, the breakdown of family structures that brings with it a loss of bearings. There is also the unity of the place, which is very specific to this story, since these kids had never left their slum. There was a closing in, even if that isn’t all bad. Indeed, shanty towns are horizontal structures where people communicate with greater flow than in the vertical structures of block housing complexes. But the limit to living in a vacuum of this kind is that people turn rigid. Moreover, in these slum niches, micro systems sometimes arise, like the Wahhabi fundamentalism that reached Morocco in the 1980s and 90s from Saudi Arabia. It’s difficult for a kid who has never known anything outside neighbourhood life not be permeated and sometimes thoroughly convinced by the idea that these new micro systems, in this instance radical Islamism, are their only future

Yet we do see in the film that soccer also enables these kids to escape their condition.

Yes, soccer really is a form of social elevator for these kids. It’s also what creates ties between them in the film since soccer possesses a unifying power that few things equal, except perhaps for art and culture, but these kids don’t have access to that.

Did you decide to romanticize, to extrapolate on the backgrounds of the kamikazes or did you remain faithful to what you knew of their real lives within this geographical and social context?

Jamal Belmahi, the screenwriter, Alain Rozanès, who accompanied us throughout the writing phase and then Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, the film’s producer, and I discussed this a lot. We were all in agreement. Reality has an exceptional virtue, that of being able to present the facts, while fiction allows us to recount them. I therefore chose to stray from the reality of the lives of these young kamikazes, to not do their biographies, in order to capture my subject and extrapolate, all the while basing it on discussions with researchers and sociologists and a reading of the research and studies on the subject.

What did you get from your reading?

The way the fundamentalists have appropriated the notion of solidarity. How they operate to recruit these youths who want for a father figure.

This lack of a father figure, of authority, does it have anything to do with that which is felt by a whole generation of children of Arab immigrants living in Europe, who feel their fathers are not respected in the social order and have let themselves be too far pushed around?

Yes, there’s a spirit of revolt, of rebellion, in common between these young generations, whether they have emigrated or remained in their country of origin. Clearly so. They criticize their parents for being too docile. These generations want it all and they want it now. The fact is, these kids live in patriarchal societies. Their mothers make the decisions but their fathers symbolize the power. So obviously, when their father’s authority is lacking, there are no longer the safeguards needed to keep these youths within certain boundaries and it all explodes. That was the case for almost all of the young kamikazes that blew themselves up in Casablanca in 2003.

Were the young actors in your film also very concerned by this issue?

No, it’s not part of their major preoccupations. They are non-professional actors we could describe as reliable albeit unwitting witnesses to a reality they carry and experience to some extent despite themselves. They are kids from working class neighbourhoods. Some, like the two main roles, even live in Sidi Moumen which is where I met them. I chose them after roaming the neighbourhoods for two years, because the difficulty, of course, was to find personalities capable of incarnating the characters.

How did you decide on the title of your film?

At first the film bore the title of the novel from which it’s adapted: “The Stars of Sidi Moumen”. But we realized that it could be perceived in a positive light, that some would see a form of glorification in what the kamikazes had committed. Whereas, while I wanted to give a human face to these young men, in no way did I wish to celebrate their deeds. We looked around and found an excerpt from a text on the jihad at the time of the Prophet: “Fly horses of God and to you the doors of heaven will open” This phrase was used several times in modern jihad terminology by Ben Laden and in televised sermons. The phrase was also pronounced in the film by the “great emir” who comes to tell them they have been chosen.

What was your directorial angle with regard to incarnating all of this? How do you conciliate sunshine and youth with despair and death?

By going from one to the other. Without going to extremes, I discussed it in terms of definite colours with my DP, Hichame Alaouie, the property master and the costume designer. I wanted us to start with everyday life full of warm, highly saturated colours, and then, as we got further into the film, toward death, for the colours to fade. The closer we got to the present, the duller the colours. Then there’s the question of framing. I wanted to stick with something sober, elegant and non demonstrative. At the same time, I wanted to keep the camera on the cameraman’s shoulder for the two-thirds of the film up to the point where they’re recruited. For that, I had the key grip make systems to “carry” the camera during moving scenes while keeping the framing dynamic, since none of the existing systems suited me. We did several days of testing to find the right system. In the last part of the film, the more the film advanced the more I wanted the image to settle down, and the rhythm to be calmer, more serious, less twisting and turning. A last angle in terms of directing is the music. I wanted anything but ethnic or folk music, “local” colour. I wanted music that wasn’t overly orchestrated (with the exception of the last piece), that was almost inaudible, unidentifiable. There are so many sounds of all sorts—music escaping from transistor radios—that comes up everywhere in the film that I wanted this music to different, for it to provide a certain detachment that can invoke another form of emotion.

What did you personally get out of the film?

It’s a film on the human condition. I think it taught me to leave behind a form of natural reserve or distance, and to reach out to others. To better understand, for sure. But to better understand myself as well, and to accept certain choices. Some choices no doubt more radical than others, made earlier. With this film, I feel less of a need to be loved and more the need to be understood. (Source: 2012 Cannes Festival – Press Kit)

%d bloggers like this: