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'Much Loved' Sheds Light on the Sisterhood of Sex Workers in Marrakech

We met the renowned filmmaker Nabil Ayouch and his star after the premiere of their tough, yet tender, film at Cannes.
May 26, 2015, 5:00pm

Still from 'Much Loved' (2015), by Nabil Ayouch. Photo by Virginie Surdej

Premiering in the Directors' Fortnight section at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Much Loved (Zine Li Fik) exposes the lives of working girls in Marrakech, the former imperial city of Morocco and popular tourist destination. This tough yet surprisingly tender tale follows four high-class ladies of the night, who are played largely by local non-professionals and led by den mother Loubna Abidar. In the film, they share a flat and talk frankly about hoping to hook up with rich Saudis with small penises—their idea of a successful evening at a nightclub or private party.

Much Loved was written and directed by renowned French-Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, whose 2012 feature, Horses of God (presented in the US by Jonathan Demme), tackled the insanity of fundamentalist behavior. Ayouch's latest offering focuses on both the economic and emotional stakes in the life of a prostitute. With a female-centric crew—including cinematographer Virginie Surdej, first AD Camilla Montasier, and special adviser Maryam Touzani—the film showcases a deep empathy, not anthropological detachment, for a women's story that deserves to be told, regardless of how controversially it has already been received in its home region.

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During Cannes, I sat down with Ayouch and Abidar (aided by a translator) at the JW Marriott hotel's rooftop to discuss the film, as well as the sociopolitical implications of its controversial subject matter.

Trailer to 'Much Loved' (2015), by Nabil Ayouch

VICE: You spent a year and a half interviewing more than a hundred sex workers in Moroccan cities to learn about their experiences. What first opened your eyes to the cultural issues and gender politics involved with prostitution in Morrocco?
Nabil Ayouch: The sentence that shocked me the most was when one of them told me, talking about her family, "I'm not a daughter anymore. I became a credit card." The fact that so many men want them, makes them very sensitive to this notion of love and affection, and they're very willing to receive that. When she told me that, I literally cried. It's something so hard to hear, to understand, that she's giving everything up—her body, her soul, her dignity—and [the men] don't even give them love in return for that.

Loubna, what did you bring to your character from your own experiences?
Loubna Abidar: I can speak for myself and all the other girls, none of us [are prostitutes]. But it's not something that is far from our lives or imaginations. We all live in poor neighborhoods, in which many girls are—it's not me, but it may as well have been my sister, my neighbor, my cousin, or the girl that I know and live with because this is something that just comes, a bit naturally, in the way of life. Girls start doing it at the very early age of 13 or 14. They don't call it "prostitution" because they're not seen as prostitutes. They just feel that they're having fun, and making some pocket money to buy clothes or things that they cannot afford. It's only once they realize the gaze of others, of society, at the age of 19 or 20, that they call themselves—and realize that they're seen as—prostitutes.

There's no slavery like with the Eastern European girls, or in the US. Here, it's more that the society is judging. –Abidar

One of the things that surprised me about the film was the unity between these women. Even though they're trying to make a quick buck, survive, and feed themselves and their families, they're a group unit.
Nabil: I think that life is really hard for them, because of all the reasons I mentioned. As long as you don't have a real family that can take care of you, you have to build another family of adoption. That's what they do, actually. These girls share everything, as you can see in the film. Angriness, shouts, friendships, love—they give themselves lots of love. It's like a life preserver for them. One woman today who is doing this job in Morocco—if you can call it a job—could not survive without this friendship. There is no pimp, le maquereau. That's a curiosity. The women are booking agendas, there is no guy to protect them. That's very important.

Why do you think that is, considering pimps play such a prominent role in prostitution in other parts of the world?
Because the violence is not physical. It's verbal, it's moral, but there's no slavery like with the Eastern European girls, or in the US. Here, it's more that the society is judging, you know? There's nobody who wants to kill them, so it's more a matter of women.

Loubna Abidar as Noha in 'Much Loved' (2015), by Nabil Ayouch. Photo by Virginie Surdej

How do the bookings work there? In the film, we mostly see the nightclubs that the girls sometimes go to and work in as a group.
It doesn't work really differently from other cultures. The places are the same—the cabaret, the disco, the bars. The only thing that is maybe different is that it happens much more shyly, in houses, than you realize.

But, for instance, there aren't streetwalkers.
No, no. Very few. Everything is hidden. Those guys who come from the Gulf countries, as we see in the film, they're happy to come and rent a big villa, and bring many girls. But you would not see them in public places, kissing them, or stuff like that, that you could see in Europe or the US.

At the beginning of the 70s, only rich people from foreign countries could afford prostitution in Morocco. Now everybody comes, even middle class, and you can bargain for one night, one hour, two hours. –Ayouch

I've visited Marrakech three times now, where haggling is an incessant sport. You head to Jemaa el-Fnaa and it's necessary to walk away from market vendors to get the best price: "No, I'm not paying that…" Does that exist within prostitution, or is it mainly pre-negotiated?
Oh, there is, there is. Everything is discussable. I mean, the girls can ask for a price, and the guy will say, "No." You can see it in the film, when the truck driver is saying, "That's all I have, I'm going to give you vegetables." They do that.

At the beginning of the 70s, only rich people from foreign countries could afford prostitution in Morocco. Now everybody comes, even middle class, and you can bargain for one night, one hour, two hours. It became an industry.

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There are so many strange, colorful details in the film, such as the bit about douching with Coke during menstruation as a form of birth control. Where did that come from?
Loubna: It's a true story—it really happened. I talked to the girls. They told me that they did this. I couldn't believe it, so I tested myself and I can testify it works.

Nabil: A new market for Coca-Cola.

Loubna: These girls really do quite well. Because they never see a doctor, they never see a gynecologist, and still they care for their bodies. They know how to have an abortion, if necessary.

[Editor's Note: Coke is a soft drink, not a contraceptive. Studies show it is ineffective at killing sperm. Please don't try douching with Coke at home. For information on proper forms of contraceptives, visit Planned Parenthood.]

Still from 'Much Loved' (2015), by Nabil Ayouch. Photo by Virginie Surdej

One of the greatest compliments I can give the film is that it feels like it's told from the empowered perspective of women, and yet it's directed by a man. I'd like to hear from both of you about Nabil being tapped into his feminist side.
Loubna: He was very bold and brave to write such a script to start with. The fact that he spent hours and hours listening to these girls, crying for them, spending sleepless nights for them, that really gave him the power to write this. No matter if it was a man or a woman, it was the empathy that he had for us that made it possible. He had no means, no great budget for it. Just through his love, he made it possible for us. We feel proud and grateful to him.

Nabil: It's been a long time that I observed this reality, and I've been waiting for a woman to do a film like this, and it didn't happen. So I decided to do it. For me, it was important that women were at the center of the film, whether in the acting or the crew. There were many women in the crew. As a man with a strong [sense] of femininity, I decided to champion for it.

Nibal Ayouch on set for 'Much Loved' (2015)

Even as liberal as Morocco is, it's still a Muslim country. I can't imagine it was easy to get funding or local support for the film.
Nibal: We didn't get support from Morocco, financially, for the film. We asked for it, but didn't get it. But to be honest, we didn't have any difficulty showing it. As you said, Morocco is more and more liberal, because there is a new freedom of expression since the new king, Mohammed VI, arrived. There are more spaces for the artist to say their truth, the way they want to. We were absolutely not bothered at all. Now we're waiting to get permission to screen the film [locally]. I would be really sad if the Moroccan audience couldn't see the film. But I'm positive. I'm hopeful.

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