Yasmine Benkiran’s first-feature length work tells the story of three women on the run from the police, driving a burly lorry across Morocco in their bid for freedom.
Queens is a feminist road film that revs fiercely towards the uncanny. It takes on a tried-and-true genre while suffusing it with a healthy dose of fantasy. Screening at the Amman International Film Festival, it makes good use of the timeless metaphor of the road. Ahead is liberty, in the rear-view is the past with all its unresolved dread.
However, like with any good road film, it is everything that happens in the winding middle that makes Queens memorable and worthy of more than one watch.
At the centre of the plot is a mother, Zeinab, who is in jail for dealing drugs. As she finds out that her daughter, Ines, is about to be interned into government care – an experience she herself knows to be harsh and traumatic – she escapes. After reuniting with her daughter, she climbs into a lorry, forcing its lone passenger, a young mechanic named Asma, to drive at gunpoint.
Asma’s kidnapping, as it turns out, is a form of salvation, as she is trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband who pinches her wages and watches her every move.
The trio thus set out across the ochre Moroccan landscape, using a litany of cons and tricks to financially sustain their escape. On their tail is a police duo made up of the jaded old-timer Nabil, who is weeks from retirement, and Batoul, relatively a newcomer to the force. The dynamic between the two is one of the film’s most endearing aspects, just as much as the bond between the three runaway women.
When Benkiran set out to make Queens, she aimed at making a film that she craved to see as a teenager.
“It was a way of making the film that I missed when I was 17,” she said, in a conversation session following the film’s Jordanian premiere at the Amman International Film Festival. “I grew up in Morocco. I noticed that when it comes to Arab cinema, we see [mostly] social dramas. When I was 17, I liked action, adventure, science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to make a crossover between those different genres.”
Queens seamlessly blends disparate genres. The action is riveting and the adventure full of unexpected turns. The stakes are high for the fugitives, which makes their escape all the more thrilling. And as the film gradually, but steadily, elevates towards magic realism, there are several laugh-out-loud moments that juxtapose airily with the heavier scenes in the film.
The fantastical aspect is laid out in the film’s opening moments as Zeinab, still in prison, scolds Ines for burning her classmate’s shoes to see whether she has hooves for feet, a marker for a djinn. Ines is on the lookout for djinn, believing that they may help her. She believes herself to be a reincarnation of Qandicha, a mythical female figure in Moroccan folklore, and is determined to make it to an argan tree to retrieve her memories and return to the land from where she came.
While in traditional Moroccan folklore, Qandicha is described as a witch-like figure who drives men to madness and suicide, Benkiran reimagines the figure as a symbol of feminism.
“What I wanted to do is take her as a witch and make her a queen. I rewrite her story,” she said. "She is, at the same time, a victim and a rebel. The idea was to take this symbol and make it more local.”
Besides the mythological aspects, the film’s characters also project an empowered sense of femininity, while making sure to deliver characters that are as inspiring as they are flawed.
“The most interesting thing for me in writing is writing the characters,” Benkiran said. “Writing characters is about finding duality and finding imperfections. The idea in each character was to [portray] a dualism, even Ines and Asma ... even the truck, which is strong and massive, but at the same time, it’s fragile and you can’t drive it easily.”
The most challenging personality to write, Benkiran said, was Zeinab. The character is every bit as ruthless and menacing as she is charming. Bekiran said the character was developed closely with Nisrin Erradi, who plays Zeinab in the film.
“[Zeinab] is aggressive but also very fragile,” Benkiran said. “She is on the edge and she can fall [on either] side.”
Erradi, a known actress in Morocco, had initially auditioned for the role of Asma, a stoic but empathetic character who is played by Nisrine Benchara. Yet, as Erradi began reading from the script, Benkiran said she noticed “something in her eyes and I gave her a page to read for the Zeinab part”.
Not only did Erradi land the role, she also began suggesting changes that added to the complexity of the character and helped her take up the form that eventually made it to the screen.
While Queens has obvious similarities to a number of female-led road and fugitive films, including Thelma and Louise, its deft patchwork of genres, strong characters and the grace with which it departs to the fantastical puts it in a realm of its own.
Its touching storyline, precise casting and camerawork is complemented by a rousing soundtrack by Jozef Van Wissem, the Dutch composer and lute player of Only Lovers Left Alive fame. The score, with its oud-like flurry of melodies and languid beats, adds yet another moving dimension to an altogether electrifying film.