Camera Q&A: Deborah Perkin on Bastards and Morocco

Deborah Perkin is a British documentary filmmaker based in Wales, and a former-producer for the BBC. It was while working there that Perkin first pitched a story about Morocco’s family court system, and the unique charity that helps single mothers resolve their marriage status with their child’s father — thus helping those children to be accepted into Moroccan society, rather than be shunned for their “bastard” status. Perkin eventually left the BBC to film that project — becoming the first filmmaker granted access to Moroccan family court sessions in Agadir — with former-BBC News Morocco Correspondent Nora Fakim, who served as co-producer and translator. The two shared a room within the Casablanca slum of Derb Ghalef for eight weeks, living amongst the single mothers they chronicled. Their footage become the documentary, Bastards, distributed through Icarus Films. It revolves around Rabha El Haimer’s fight to legalize her forced traditional marriage ceremony performed at age 14, and make the father of her daughter Salma accept the legality of the marriage and paternity of his child. Such opportunities for legal redress exist due to social reforms implemented under King Mohammed VI. Yet sex outside of marriage is still illegal in Morocco, and single mothers and their legally-illegitimate children are often treated as outcasts in Moroccan society. It was for the sake of such women that Aicha Chenna founded Association Solidarité Féminine [Women’s Solidarity Association], whose advocacy and clients (inlcuding Rabha El Haimer) Perkin documents in Bastards. Perkin journeyed to New York recently to present her film for its U.S. premiere at 2014′s 21st New York African Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, and talked to Camera In The Sun about her filmmaking experience in Morocco, its gender inequality issues, and her take on the local impact of the “Arab Spring.”

How does your previous producing work compare to making Bastards?

Both methods of working are tough. You never have enough money. You never have enough time. You get back to the edit, you’re always short of a shot. So to that extent, filmmaking is a real stretch. But it is thrilling to work with first-class crews, which I have done all my working life up to this project. So I can have an idea, an image in my mind, a way of working. I’ve worked with cameramen over 15 years, and together we can devise a look for the thing, take some time. I’m also working with a presenter. So if you’re not also having to think about charging your batteries, and making sure you’re downloading things, and all of that, it just gives you more thinking time. So working for the BBC in that context, you do a massive amount of planning, a very short shoot, and you have a bit more time to think in the moment. But it all gets compressed into time. Whereas working on my own… I wasn’t alone. I had an assistant producer, Nora Fakim, without whom I couldn’t possibly have made the film — because she speaks Arabic. Not just with translating, but with negotiating the access, and so on. Instead of a larger crew, we were just two women: me on a camera, and her with a mic. We needed a lot more time to achieve what we needed to do. That’s how it goes. You’re going to have a great big drama with a massive crew, and a catering truck, and a very short number of shooting days. Or you can film over 18 months, as we did with just two women living in a Casablanca slum with mattresses on the floor of a room, going to the local hammam, and keeping our costs down. I mean, you just have to cut your cloth according to how things are.

I was living in Casablanca, very close to the charity. One of their board members had very kindly organized a flat for us, which was a perfectly reasonable price. But it was a whole bus ride or taxi ride away. It was just very impractical, and not very useful from a filmmaking point of view, to have to travel. So I suggested that I’d actually like to live locally. The charity just couldn’t believe it. Because they weren’t used to film crews coming in and wanting to live in Derb Ghalef, which is a very rough area of Casablanca quite close to the charity. But I insisted, because we really did. It wasn’t a shanty town. It’s not a tin-roofed place, or absolutely filthy. But it was what we would call a “slum” in Britain. A bit like Glasgow tenements between the wars, let’s say. Just big tall buildings, and lots of steps. The assistant producer and I shared a room. There were no bathrooms, so we had to use the local hammam. And it was wonderful, because we cooked out on the landing. We shared cooking over a sort of gas stove. Often, our neighbors just wanted to talk to us. I would complain about my children, what they were or weren’t doing, and all of that. We were just having normal conversations with people. I mean, you’re not filming all the time. Obviously, you’re waiting for court cases to come up, things to happen, and so you’re living a normal life. That’s the way you get to know people, and how they start to share their stories with you. But Derb Ghalef is a really rough area. Our taxi drivers sometimes just wouldn’t drive in to take us home. It’s known to be a den of thieves, and so on. But I have to say, I felt totally safe. I was the only real European person living around the area, and therefore I stood out like a sore thumb. People got to know me very very quickly, and they knew I was carrying a camera. Nobody ever stole anything from me. They were very supportive. There was a lovely butcher at the end of the road, and he said, “If anybody gives you any trouble, Deborah, you come and see me.” And he’s sharpening his knives…

It was a privilege to live amongst the poor in Casablanca, and be treated as one of them. I mean, clearly I’m not poor. My husband’s a doctor, and I’m not pretending it’s a lifestyle I would choose to embrace for the rest of my life. That would be really hypocritical to say. But it was a real privilege to live a simpler life, actually. Just go home, cook, talk to people, jiggle their babies, not worry about running a house, and the material things that we worry about quite so much.

How visible are women in public areas of Moroccan society?

Being on holiday to Morocco, or any Muslim country, you tend to see men in cafes hanging out together playing backgammon. And the women are usually at home preparing meals. I mean, Morocco is a little bit different, because there are more women out on the streets. That’s what got me going with the whole story in the first place. I noticed there were many more women out and about serving on hotel desks, or carrying briefcases, or on television as politicians. Different from Egypt, there is a sort of expectation in Morocco that there are educated women. Indeed, a lot of the educated women in Morocco don’t wear headscarves. So in one sense, I didn’t stand out terribly much. But I guess I did look a little bit more European than others. I was treated with nothing but respect, to be absolutely honest. It’s a privilege to be a foreigner carrying a camera with permission to film. So the police would treat you with respect. They wouldn’t want to mess with you, partly because you are a foreigner.

The vast majority of women I was dealing with were very ordinary women, most of whom couldn’t read and write, who were stigmatized for having had sex outside marriage — which is illegal. So they are technically criminals. Fortunately, they live in Morocco, and weren’t going to be stoned to death or locked up. But I think their concerns, quite honestly, were where the next meal was coming from, and how to raise their children in a dignified way. The women who run the charity, they’re all educated, they’re all bilingual, they all speak French — which of course, the majority of ordinary people don’t.

What is the larger sexual climate of Morocco?

Morocco is the Muslim country closest to Europe. You stand at Cap Spartel, and literally see Gibraltar and across to Spain. Because it was a French protectorate for all those years in the first half of the 20th century, there have been a lot of ideas flowing backwards and forwards. That’s the sort of good side of it: an intellectual exchange of ideas. But also, you can’t really deny the fact that Morocco has been a place for sex tourism for many many years. All sorts of Brits, particularly gay men, have gone and lived over there. Partly to escape, I suppose, the pressures of living in Europe. Or they’re perhaps more accepted. So I think proximity to Europe brings really good things, like an openness of mind to ideas. But it also brings really bad things, with Europeans going across to buy sex. There’s a lot of pedophilia, trade in young girls, human trafficking. There’s a really murky side to Morocco. So it’s pretty fraught. They’ve suffered and they’ve benefited from proximity to Europe.

There’s a lot of sex going on in Morocco. Somebody said to me, “It’s like the opposite of football. Everybody talks about football, and hardly anybody plays it. And in Morocco, nobody talks about sex, but they’re all doing it.” So whether it is as a result of being close to France, or whether it is just Morocco’s own culture, and it has just always had a lot of sexual activity, I have absolutely no idea. Whether Islam came along and tried to put a lid on that, I don’t know. But young people are pretty sexually active in the cities. There’s a lot of people having affairs, and so on. And if you have money, if you’re educated, you can get an abortion. It’s illegal, but you can. You can certainly get contraception. There are couples even living together in Rabat. I have friends there. So there’s several layers of activity. You can live a Western life there, as long as you don’t flaunt it. But for ordinary people, that’s just not possible. For young women growing up in ordinary rural families, their virginity is paramount. If you lose your virginity, you’re not marriageable. You’re tainted goods. It’s so deeply unfair. It’s such an obvious and predictable thing to say, but it’s worth saying that where you are born, the circumstances of your birth, and the culture you’re born into just dictate the way you live. And it’s so deeply unfair, even within one society, as I’m describing.

It was just the same in the West over the centuries. It’s only about 50 years, a tiny blip in time, that we’ve accepted that people can live together and have sex outside marriage. And the word “bastard” is the technical term for illegitimate. We’ve adopted it to mean an obnoxious person. But that’s a measure of how much we dislike bastards, or used to. So being a legitimate child within the family means you get to inherit the wealth of the family. And virginity is really crucial. Because as long as its a virgin bride, then the first born, or the heir, is the bloodline who is going to inherit the money. It all comes down to property in the end, really. I know it’s aligned with honor, of course. But that is to buttress up this notion that you want to create a bloodline, where it’s clear who inherits what. I mean, this is the basis of all societies and tribes, and anywhere you’re inheriting. And I suppose it’s just a matter of getting rid of those ideas, and not worrying so much about landed families or royalty. I mean, if you even look back to Princess Diana, it was important even then in the 1980s that she was a virgin bride. It has changed now with Kate, and clearly she and William have lived together. But Diana was only 19, and it was important that she hadn’t had other boyfriends. The royal family still made that a virtue, so they were absolutely certain the first-born, the heir to the throne, was going to be really the child of that father.

Has DNA testing made resolution of Moroccan paternity cases easier?

It ought to sort everything out, shouldn’t it? It ought to be really simple. The problem in Morocco is that a man does not have to take a DNA test if he doesn’t consent to it. So a court cannot simply order a man to take the DNA test. The whole court case that I follow in the film over 18 months, it could have been done and dusted if they’d ordered the man to take a DNA test. It would have proved paternity. I could never get over that. It should have been sorted out. I kept saying to the charity, “Why don’t they just force it.” They said, “Oh well, it’s our culture. You can’t really force the man.” And it’s not so much paternity. It’s proving the marriage that matters. From a money point of view, it’s true, because she proved that she was married. The children automatically belong to the father, and hopefully she will get a back payment of money right back to the date of marriage. Not just to the birth of the child. So that’s why they were so anxious to prove the marriage. But DNA testing, I think they really need to wake up to it in a much much bigger way. A lot of lawyers say they need to just order men to go and have a DNA test to sort it out one way or another. Not let them go on for years and years. Because the father of little Salma still hasn’t paid any money, even though he lost the court case. And little Salma is now 9 years old. I mean, very soon she’s going to be a grown-up, and this father will have got out of all his responsibilities.

What is the importance of the charity you highlight in Bastards?

Aicha Chenna set up Association Solidarité Féminine [Women’s Solidarity Association] in Casablanca in 1985 to keep mothers and babies together, and try to help them reintegrate into society to live decent lives. Because the alternative is so horrific. If the girl’s parents won’t take her back — and a lot won’t — then what are her options? Certainly abandoning the baby is number one, so they can at least make a living without the literal burden to be left holding the baby. And as I say in the film, 6,500 babies are abandoned every year in Morocco. Those are UN statistics. I interviewed a doctor who deals with the backwash of all of that. He has babies brought to him from fields, from streets, found in dustbins. It’s amazing that a mother feels compelled to do that, just to carry on with her life. But I suppose some prostitutes manage to bring up their kids, and look after their kids, if you can live in some sort of brothel or in a community, or something like that. But there is plenty of drug addiction. In fact, I started filming the story of one young woman who’d grown up in the Sahara and left. She had been raped. It was a really tragic story. But during the course of filming, she left and she had her baby privately adopted, as far as we know — i.e. gave it away to a family. We weren’t very sure. Then she went off, and was taking drugs. I don’t know whether she was actually getting involved with prostitution, but I don’t know where her money was coming from.

[Association Solidarité Féminine is] using the reformed mudwana, the family code, the sharia law that was introduced in 2004. So they have lawyers who will talk to women who had been through some form of traditional marriage, or an engagement. If you can prove that you were engaged, or married, or that everybody thought you were married, then this tiny group of women can actually use the law. That’s what I wanted to show.

But for the vast majority of single mums who just had sex with their boyfriends and been promised marriage, or been raped, or suffered from incest — the law is not open to them. So there is a long way to go, and the charity is campaigning to try and expand the opportunities under the law. In practical terms, they provide space for about 50 women at any one time to train for work under their roof. They give them training in cooking in the kitchen. They run a little cafe that serves couscous, and sells that to the public. They run a hammam. So it’s not a residential place. The women live in rented accommodations around and about, and that’s where I was living alongside them. But they come in every day, and they’re expected to be there at work all day. There is also free childcare provided. And I don’t know if you have kids, but I do, and the one most crucial thing for any working parent is obviously to have your children’s safety looked after. So there are two nurseries: one for little tiny babies, and one for toddlers. They can stay there until the children are three.

So it’s an incredible, practical, hands-on way of getting them to learn how to be mums, how to be a working parent, and how to have discipline in their lives. They have a lot of psychological support as well. One-to-one counseling. And of course, they’re all in the same boat. That’s always a good thing. There are always little spats and arguments going on, and jealousies and rivalries, as you would in any kind of institution like that. But it really does work. Not many of those women abandon their babies. They really are helped through.

They also do literacy classes at the charity. So they come out of there able to read and write in Arabic, which is a huge step forward. They’re able to go for jobs which, ironically enough — if they hadn’t had the baby, and stayed in their villages, and never learned to read and write — they probably wouldn’t have been qualified to get.

But life’s very tough for them. They’re considered to be prostitutes. People talk of them like that. It’s hard for them to get married. Some of them do. Occasionally they’ll get another man, and he will want to marry them, and take on their child. But that is seen as a charitable act. It’s pretty tough. They’re really condemned to a life of being stigmatized. But the charity works very very hard. Yes, it exists to try and help them integrate into society as single mothers. But it really tries to reconcile them with the fathers. So there’s a lot of negotiation, and gentle moving forward, with trying to contact the fathers. Sometimes they go through his sister. Or they try to get at him and prick his conscience to make him feel, “Well, I brought this child into the world. Shouldn’t I really come and get married to the mother?” And that’s a long long haul. They don’t have too many successes. But I did witness one couple actually being marched down to the police station, because he’d agreed he would sign up and get married. I didn’t include the story in the film. He never did finally marry her. He went through the first stages, but it never quite resolved. Unfortunately, you can’t include every story in your film. But there’s one shot of them where the father and mother are sitting there, and she’s jiggling the little boy on her knee. It says they’re trying to bring fathers and mothers together. I just wish them well. I always tell them that Victorian Britain used to be very like Morocco today, and that parents would say, “Never darken my door again”, and “You can come back home, but only if you get rid of that baby.” All this kind of thing. And they’re amazed to hear that. Because they watch telly, and they think that the West is full of very very tolerant people, and everybody’s living together and having sex, and what-have-you. And I said, “My god, no, it wasn’t at all like that.” So things can change awfully quickly, can’t they? Attitudes can change.

How did the Arab Spring impact filming in North Africa?

It took me four years to make this film, in all. So I was actually in Morocco in January and February 2011. Tunisia kicked it off when [Mohamed Bouazizi] committed suicide in December 2010. So I was out in Morocco a month later. People were avidly following what was going on in Tunisia, and then Egypt. There were some protests, and I filmed some of them, because I thought maybe the whole story would change. Who knew what was going to happen there. So there were a lot of protests in Rabat, but it never got anywhere near violence. The complete difference between Morocco and many other places is that people really love their king. They really really love him. I mean he’s autocratic and has absolute power. He can dissolve parliament at any time. And yet, people were complaining about wanting more democracy. So I would say, “Do you want to limit the powers of the king then?” And they’d go, “Oh no, no, no. We think he’s marvelous. No, no, it’s the parliamentarians we want to get rid of.” So it was a certain amount of muddle about what was the way forward. And it’s a realistic position. I mean, they observed a lot of corruption in the parliament, and so on. But they really don’t want to get rid of their king. They’re way away from that.

What influence does Morocco’s monarchy have on everyday life there?

Nothing would happen in Morocco without the king’s approval. His father, Hassan II was, certainly in the early part of his reign, pretty brutal. He put down a couple of coups in the ’70s, and locked people up in underground prisons for the whole of their lives. So when his son Mohammed VI came to power in 1999, he wanted to make a break with the past, and with the kind of image his father had had. In fact, he’d been educated in France, and he wanted to be a modern man and move forward. Straight away, he started to talk about women’s rights, and so on. I mean, nothing happens overnight, does it? But there’s been quite a sort of feminist movement from the ’80s onwards. I guess he’d been reading and listening and talking to people, and talking to fellow students, and had his own ideas. These legal reforms which gave women in Morocco more rights than in any other Muslim country in the world, they came in in 2004. So you see, it’s within 5 years of his arrival as king. And I think quite crucially, they were hammered through a year after the suicide bombings in Casablanca. The resistance to legal reform, giving women more rights, had come from the conservative Muslims anyway. And so when these bombings happened in 2003, after that the conservatives were on the back foot of trying to defend themselves from accusations of being jihadists, or something. And so, “softly softly, catchee monkey”, they got the legislation through and onto the statute books in 2004. And it’s brave. If you read the act, the very front of it says something like, “His most divine majesty wishes to make this announcement. He wishes to reform the law along modern human rights lines.” Now that’s real dynamite, isn’t it? It’s so brave.

About the Director

Christian Niedan

Christian Niedan is a producer for films and a blogger. He launched his blog Camera in the Sun. He writes about how film and television have shaped how people view various places around the globe. He also posts interviews with film commissioners across the US, and has expanded to include interviews from Mexico, Canada, and eastern and western Europe.