Moroccan filmmaker Al Hadi Ulad-Mohand was aged 13 when his father began showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
At the time, neither Ulad-Mohand nor his family knew what was happening to him. All they knew was the man they loved was not behaving like himself.
“I didn’t know this disease then,” Ulad-Mohand, who is now in his forties, recalls. "I just saw my father acting weird. I thought he was acting."
It took a few months for the family to admit that there was something seriously wrong with the senior Ulad-Mohand, and they took him to a doctor in Tangiers, 30 kilometres north of their hometown of Asilah.
“This was a long, long time ago," he says. "I had seen old people suffer from neurological diseases, but no one explained to us what Alzheimer's was. My father was young, 50 years old. He was a great father and with an open mind. We were close. I knew I was losing my father and I felt I had to do something.”
Ulad-Mohand’s father died years ago, but the filmmaker never gave up his pursuit of trying to help him in some symbolic way. “I wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “But I knew I would never be a doctor, so I wanted to do something artistic.”
His debut feature film, Life Suits Me Well, which screened at Saudi Arabia's inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival, is just that, he says: a tribute in fiction to his family.
“For me, it’s like I found a cure to this disease,” he says. “By doing this film and sharing this story with people, I felt like I found a cure.”
Featuring a stellar cast that includes Samir Guesmi, Lubna Azabal and Sayyid El Alami, the film is set in the mid-1990s and tells the story of Fouad, a telephone technician who is stricken with a neurological disease and begins to lose touch with his surroundings. It follows his family’s efforts to understand and cope with Fouad’s erratic behaviour and dwindling consciousness.
As much as his father’s condition provided the inspiration for Life Suits Me Well, Ulad-Mohand says the heart of his film comes from the love his parents had for one another, and the unconventionality of their relationship.
He describes the characters in the film, as well as his own family, as an ordinary and extraordinary household within Asilah.
“Ordinary in the sense that the family is poor, living day by day, working to survive. The father goes to work, the mother stays at home, the children go to school,” he says. “They are extraordinary because they are open-minded. The father married his wife after she had a child with someone else. Until now, most young people wouldn’t do that. But their love was strong until the end.”
Ulad-Mohand, who has been living in Paris for the last two decades, says the film could have been set anywhere. However, it was important to him to tell his parents’ story where it actually transpired.
“It’s my hometown,” he says of the coastal area famous for its historic fortification, with white seaside walls and intact ramparts. “And it felt right to shoot there, an automatic decision. I could see the images I wanted to shoot clearly. I also wanted to convey the real images of what happened. I was really lucky to be born there. A lot of tourists visited Asilah and, as we grew up, we met Spanish, German and American people."
Finding the right actor to play the part of Fouad was a challenge, Ulad-Mohand says. He initially had a different actor in mind as he wrote the script, but it soon became clear he wouldn’t be right for the role.
“I then saw The Aquatic Effect, a French film that Samir stars in and I said ‘oh my god, he can be Fouad’ and for the role of Rita, the mother, I had been following Lubna Azabal’s career for some time."
The film was not easy for Ulad-Mohand to write or shoot because of how personal it is, but he was adamant to make it as he knew it would move people.
“This is a story about love, how love can open doors,” he says. “It’s love for family, love for fellow human beings, and though it isn’t easy now with the pandemic, the effect I want this film to have is, by the time the credits roll, [for people] to hug the person next to them. That’s the ideal.”