As Mina gets increasingly sick, her body withering away, her husband dotes on her: He washes her hair, helps her change, brings the sweetness of a fruit to her lips. But underneath the genuinely tender moments shared by this on-screen Moroccan couple simmers a longing — of a forbidden kind.
In her latest film, “The Blue Caftan,” Moroccan director Maryam Touzani delicately weaves intricate, overlapping tales of love, both traditional and largely taboo for many in her country and its region as she tells the story of a woman and her secretly gay husband who together run a shop making caftans. The marriage grows more complicated when the couple hires a male apprentice.
Wading into socially sensitive subjects is not unfamiliar terrain for Touzani who has won accolades at international film festivals and, just recently, was a jury member at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “The Blue Caftan,” which had been shortlisted in the international feature film category for the 95th Academy Awards, is scheduled for release Wednesday in Morocco, where gay sex is illegal.
“I’m really hoping that it would be able to trigger a debate about the LGBT community and its place …, things that we don’t generally talk about because they are sensitive subjects,” Touzani told The Associated Press. “For a healthy society, it’s important to be able to talk about everything.”
In Rabat, 27-year-old Laila Sahraoui argued some topics are best left behind closed doors.
“Moroccans … worry that their kids could imitate such ideas,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t watch the film. “Because of our Islam, we don’t like such things in Morocco. … It’s absolutely not appropriate for our society.”
But Touzani, 42, said others shared with her how important it was to portray characters like Halim, the husband.
“Morocco is a very complex country where there are very different points of view coexisting,” she said. “It’s about being able to just push certain boundaries and just to question certain things. ... That’s what art can help us do as well, cinema especially.”
Filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, Touzani’s husband who co-wrote “The Blue Caftan” with her and is its main producer, said he is curious about moviegoers’ reactions, but feels confident.
“There’s a younger and younger audience and they want to see new type of movies, new type of cinemas in the Arab world,” he said. “The more conservative audience will probably not be very pleased.”
Part of art’s role, Ayouch said, is to disturb, to stir debate.
While he welcomes the recognition their movies garner abroad, he said it’s important for films like “The Blue Caftan” also to be experienced by audiences at home and in the Arab world.
For those having to "live their sexuality secretly,” he said, “films like this one can give them some courage to face who they are more publicly.”
In “The Blue Caftan,” Mina, the wife, has a sense of humor and a feisty side that she uses to protect her husband, who considers her his “rock.” She’s an observant Muslim; viewers repeatedly watch her pray.
Halim is a man torn. He has a gentle soul and takes pride in his craft — correcting a customer on a fabric’s exact shade of blue — while catering to shoppers in a changing world, with little patience for the time he takes to embroider by hand. He loves his wife, even as he slips into a cabin at a public bathhouse for secret sexual encounters with men.
Sexual tension builds up between him and the male apprentice, Youssef. As Mina’s health falters, Youssef increasingly helps the couple and a love triangle of sorts ensues.
Ultimately, Touzani said, it’s a movie about “love in its many forms.”
That includes love for the traditional craft of caftan embroidery, with sensual scenes of fabrics and stitches.
“One of the things I wanted to show in this film is the beauty of certain traditions,” she said. “There are other traditions that … need to be questioned,” she added, citing scenes when Halim challenges some burial rituals.
In one scene, Halim asks for Mina’s forgiveness, telling her that all his life he has tried in vain to get rid of “this thing.” She tells him she’s proud to have been his wife, then rests her head on his shoulder.
Being a woman of faith didn’t stop Mina from understanding her husband, Touzani said.
“We have the tendency of saying, ‘Well, if you are religious, then you cannot be this or you cannot be that.’ I believe that we can be many things at the same time because we are such complex beings.”
Smail, a Moroccan LGBTQ rights activist who identifies as nonbinary, saw the movie abroad and said it showed that “love is for everyone.” Asking to be identified by first name only due to the sensitivity of the topic, Smail added: “When we advocate for more personal freedoms in Morocco, we hear that the people won’t accept that ... but through Mina’s example, we have a glimmer of hope because Mina is one of the people.”
Ahmed Benchemsi, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, said that while the number of those prosecuted for gay sex in Morocco “is relatively low” and the topic of homosexuality is less of a taboo there than it used to be, “the law is still there and it hangs over the heads of everybody.”
Online, before the Morocco release of “The Blue Caftan,” some praised Touzani’s work as powerful and moving; others accused her of courting the West and catering to its sensibilities over issues more relevant to Moroccans.
“I don’t make cinema to please anybody,” Touzani said. “I just want to be as truthful as possible to my characters and to the stories I want to tell.”
Touzani’s feature-film directing debut, “Adam,” tells the story of two women whose lives intersect when one takes in the other, an unmarried stranger who’s looking for a place to stay until she gives birth after getting pregnant. She talks about plans to give away her baby to shield him from the stigma that would otherwise mar his future.
It was inspired by Touzani’s parents hosting a woman who showed up at their doorstep under similar circumstances. When Touzani was pregnant with her son, she felt “the violence” that the woman endured in having to relinquish her baby because “socially she couldn’t do otherwise.”
Broaching topics “unspoken of in Arab and Islamic societies” is one common thread between “Adam” and “The Blue Caftan,” said film critic Cherqui Ameur.
“We hope to have fewer taboos in our society through discussing all issues,” he said.
In 2015, “Much Loved,” a movie directed and written by Ayouch, in which Touzani worked in various capacities, was barred from release in the country. Authorities at the time charged that the movie, portraying female sex workers, was offensive to Moroccan women and values. The movie, excerpts from which appeared online, sparked uproar; it was defended by some on freedom of expression and human-interest grounds and criticized by others who said its language was crude and scenes too explicit.
Born in Tangier to a Moroccan father and Moroccan-Spanish mother, Touzani, an avid reader, studied journalism in London but eventually turned to filmmaking.
She said she gravitates toward telling stories of people on the margins. On the screen, she wants to give them the voice they may not have and the possibilities that may not exist in real life.
“These are the people that inspire me, that touch me, that haunt me,” Touzani said. “These are the people that really make their way inside my heart and stay there naturally without me looking for it.”
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