Rabat – Lahcen Zinoun’s film Maouchouma, or Tattooed, did not premiere without causing a stir in Moroccan movie  theaters. Many took note of the nude scenes of the protagonist, a country girl named Adjou Aït Ishak, and her intimate relationship with Naim, an anthropologist who falls in love with Adjou after coming to the village to find actors for his film.
The film casting was seemingly an excuse for Naim, played by Ismail Aboulkanater, to have a relationship with Adjou, played by Fatym Layachi. Following the life of her tattoo becomes a way to call closer attention to the details of collective memory and our relationships to the body.
In the film, the body itself is protagonist. It is a space for self-exploration and freedom. Outside the film, the body has become a subject of controversy between those who welcomed the film’s boldness and those who rejected the nude scenes,  arguing that they are gratuitous and could be omitted without affecting the plot.
As such, many described the film as being “inconsistent with religious values” even if they did not see the film itself. The loudest critic was Islamist MP and leader in the Justice and Development Party Abdelaziz Aftati. Even though he didn’t see the film, he maintained that as long as a nude body is present, then the work must be “inconsistent with morals and values.”
In a statement, Aftati said that public opinion considers this film “a vice and out of place because works like these offer no educational benefit, are not considered much of an achievement and offer nothing culturally or socially. That is why they will not meet with public approval, and instead they will only be met with public anger and indignation.” The MP’s opinion coincided with positions taken by conservative newspapers that were highly critical of the film.
The controversy also intensified due to the presence of a tattoo on a Moroccan woman’s body. Zinoun fiercely defended his choices, stressing that his film is not pornographic and that the presence of the nude body was necessary for the ideas he wanted to engage.
Maouchouma tells the partially true story of the Amazigh, or Berber, poetess Mririda n’Aït Attik as written about by an early 20th century French doctor. Her erasure from public memory led some to claim that she never really existed. This cultural oblivion prompted the director to make his film in order to revive a part of this forgotten memory: when a tattoo was a symbol of a woman’s fertility, a means to prevent illness and a medium to display her beauty.
In the process of defending his film, Zinoun tried to appease his critics. He insisted that the film is “respectful of Moroccan society as evidenced by the fact that it passed the reading committee of the Moroccan Cinema Center, which contributed to the film’s budget.” (The film cost about US$ 700,000 to produce.) He went on to say that his film received the best screenplay award at the National Film Festival of Tangier.
The screenplay was co-written by both the director and the late writer Mohamed Sukri. Yet Zinoun did not entirely succeed in capturing the “complicated simplicity” of the screenplay. That is why in many of the scenes, the dialogue doesn’t quite match the characters. This could also be the result of the dialogue being written in French and then translated into colloquial Moroccan dialect. It stripped the film’s characters of a certain spontaneity that one would expect from a people living in faraway mountains, in the marginalized geography of Morocco.
Zinoun and Sukri delved into research on the theme of the body and tattoos, but they only found a few reference materials that addressed the legacy of Moroccan and especially Amazigh memory.
However, there are many scenes in the film that are visually and aesthetically picturesque because of Zinoun’s playfulness with the body. His decades-long work as a professional dancer and choreographer facilitated this task. Some scenes combine visual beauty with carnal poetics.
As for Layachi, she has been thrust into the limelight for her bold portrayal of Adjou. The only critique that can be leveled against her performance in Maouchouma is that she bore the same face throughout the movie, rarely altering her expressions despite changes in the nature of the scenes.
Weeks ago, the actress had appeared on the cover of a men’s magazine Zyriab wearing men’s boxers, which also caused much controversy. Maouchouma is the second film starred in by Layachi over the past two years, the previous being a film by Mohamed Achaour. Her audacity has prompted many Moroccan directors – who are used to Moroccan actresses rejecting roles involving sexuality – to cast her in their films.
Months ago, Layachi and a group of other artists criticized the notion of “clean art” put forth by promoters of chastity in Moroccan cinema. To demonstrate her critique, she took pictures of herself in a dumpster, as if to say the place of “clean art” is in the trash bin.