Leila Kilani's story of broken dreams: Living life 'On the Edge' in Morocco
The city of Tangier in Morocco was once a paradise for Western literary icons like Paul Bowles and Jean Genet.
Today, waves of young Moroccans pour into the city from rural areas only to find that the colorful cosmopolitan dreamscape immortalized in foreign imaginations has morphed into an industrial hellhole on the fringes of a global capitalist empire.
This new generation lives “On the Edge,” the title of 42-year-old director Leila Kilani’s first feature-length narrative film.
The film, which received the Grand Prix in the 13th National Film Festival in Tangier, is based on a true story reported by the press in 2005 about the “feminization of crime.”
The story follows the lives of four young women from poor backgrounds who come to Tangier to find work in the burgeoning industrial center. Through their eyes, we see the city as a magnet for destitute and marginalized women like themselves who work either in seafood factories, where the stench of fish coats the skin, or in textile factories for famous European brands.
Tangier has another side, however, and the women soon find themselves caught up in its vibrant underbelly. They transform from victims into heroines, warriors who live by their own rules and take their rights by force when they are not given freely.
In one illuminating scene, one of the women explains her life philosophy: “I do not steal, but I compensate myself. I do not rob, but I repossess my belongings. I do not smuggle; I trade. I do not prostitute myself, but this is what they claimed. I am not lying. I am merely expressing what I will become. I am only one step ahead from reality, my reality.”
Their life of crime reveals a city that has witnessed tremendous changes in the last few decades. It is less youthful than the Tangier of old, more ruthless, and beholden to a global economic system in which the benefits are reaped elsewhere.
Kilani’s is the latest in a string of Moroccan films that toy with the subjects of fate and poetic tragedy. Other such examples include Faouzi Binsaidi’s Death for Sale (2011) and Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s Casa Negra (2008).
Both those films spoke to the challenges faced by men in Morocco’s big cities. Kilani’s On the Edgeexplores the lives of women.
Kilani, who began her career in 1999 as a documentary filmmaker, chose amateurs with no prior acting experience to play her protagonists. Her roots in documentary filmmaking is very apparent in her observational style, even as a feature director.
Kilani is best known for her extraordinary 2008 documentary Our Forbidden Places, about four families searching for loved ones who were kidnapped during “the years of lead” – the restive reign of King Hassan II when tens of thousands were arrested, tortured and killed, or merely disappeared.