'The Mother of All Lies' Review: An Inspired Moroccan Documentary Tackling Family Secrets and the History of a Nation

‘The Mother of All Lies’ Review: An Inspired Moroccan Documentary Tackling Family Secrets and the History of a Nation

Using a scale model of her childhood neighborhood and small figurines to represent family, friends and neighbors, many of whom are interviewed here, Moroccan documentary filmmaker Asmae El Moudir takes a disarmingly folksy and artisanal approach to unlocking multiple secrets in her first feature film The mother of all lies.

The result is an astute, often playful but ultimately moving study of community, generational angst, and hidden state atrocities that blends documentary technique with originality and polished storytelling skill. El Moudir won the Best Director award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, which will certainly be a boon for the film’s distribution prospects as well as the director’s career.

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The mother of all lies

The bottom line

Inventive and moving.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Director: Asmae El Moudir

1 hour and 37 minutes

Mother has many beautiful and impressive features, but perhaps first among equals is El Moudir’s ability to use the voice-over narration, spoken by the director herself, just enough to add structure and a personal touch but not so much that it overwhelms the polyphony of other voices in the film. Instead, it seems that the young director, who does not wear the traditional Islamic headscarf (unlike her mother Ouarda Zorkani and grandmother Zahra), is our guide in a tiny, strange lost world.

Needing to relocate, the family are packing up their apartment in the Sebata neighborhood of Casablanca, Morocco, where they’ve lived for years. Asmae notes how surprising it is that there are no photos of her as a child other than one of her, of her in a white dress. This was taken in a neighborhood photo studio against a Hawaiian backdrop, one of Morocco’s favorite fantasy portrait spots, according to El Moudir.

To show all of this instead of relying only on a podium shot of the image itself, El Moudir persuades his father Mohamed, a successful builder, to build a scaled-down set of their home as seen from the street and wider neighborhood, as as well as a dollhouse-style structure that shows the inside of their apartment while adjoining that of the people next door. Equipped with dolls representing all family members, as well as Abdalla and Said, two of the story’s most important neighbors, Asmae has everything she needs to create some kind of therapeutic apparatus that helps convince the long-dormant stories of the former residents.

What she discovers is that a terrible trauma befell everyone when a public outcry over the price of bread in the early 1980s turned into a bloodbath that killed many residents. Some, like a neighbor named Fatima, were killed on the street while others were taken away and tortured by the repressive regime. All of this is barely talked about history to this day in a state that, under a new king, still has a poor human rights record, though nowhere near as bad as it was in the “years of lead,” like the period of terrible repressions from the beginning of the 60s to the end of the 80s were known.

El Moudir moves nimbly between the macro and micro levels, filling in the historical record in a way that is accessible to non-Moroccan viewers but without underestimating its complexities. Meanwhile, both the director and we viewers know much more about her family, especially her angry and overbearing grandmother Zahra, who rips off the figurine that was supposed to represent her and stares at the camera in barely concealed disgust. Partly this is due to the disapproval of figurative representation that many Muslims adhere to, but Zahra’s fury also stems from her own traumas that Asmae only learns about during the making of the film.

But while this helps the generations understand each other, there is no false sentimentality to the experience; just a sense of how the pain continues in the blood of families and wider social units, especially if the wounds of history never see the light of day.