When Fyzal Boulifa made his short film The Curse in Morocco in 2012, he knew he had unfinished business there. Inspired by an event recounted by his mother, it went to the Cannes Film Festival and kick-started his career, leading to him making his acclaimed feature film debut with Lynn + Lucy (2019).
More than that, though, he loved working in Morocco, the country his parents are from, even though he was raised in Britain. “I grew up going to Morocco all the time, and I’m very interested in where my parents have come from,” he says.
It’s also why he insisted his second feature film, The Damned Don’t Cry, take him back to the country of his parents’ birth. “My biggest connection to Morocco is through my mother, and she grew up in very difficult circumstances. She grew up very poor, she barely went to school.
"And so the Morocco that I know is a working-class Morocco. And I suppose it’s more her story than anything that interests me. Family is very important in Morocco, right? And my mum was adopted and being adopted in Morocco is not quite the same thing as being adopted here [in the UK].”
The film isn’t about adoption, nor is it autobiographical, but it centres on a fiery mother-son relationship. The garrulous Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae), a woman of possibly ill repute, lives with her teenage son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji), barely keeping their heads above water as they move from place to place.
“I think that the idea of growing up on the margins of a society where the only real social safety net is the family has always been part of where I come from and something that interested me,” Boulifa says.
We’re chatting over Zoom, just a few days before the start of the Venice International Film Festival. Boulifa has only just completed work on the film, in time for its premiere on Thursday in the Venice Days strand of the event.
He seems surprised he’s made the cut. “I was really expecting to wait a bit longer [for a festival opportunity],” he says. “But I think the timing of Venice is great. And once we premiere that allows us to go to other festivals afterwards.”
He hopes that will include Middle Eastern cinematic gatherings. “We’re certainly going to do our best to share it with audiences wherever we can.”
How it will be received in different parts of the world will be interesting. In the film, Fatima-Zahra experiences something of a religious awakening, keen to cleanse herself of her troubled past. Again, the director took inspiration from his mother.
“She became very religious. There was a moment in my life where I saw this kind of massive change in her.” As such, he shows the character’s embracing of the Muslim faith with absolute sincerity.
“I’m always feeling like so many films that are coming from the Middle East [and North Africa] and going to European festivals, often create this very binary opposition between religion and personal freedom,” he says. “And it’s something that does very well in festivals … but it can also be deployed in a very cynical way. And it can also be consumed in a very cynical way.”
Boulifa had no desire for this. Instead, he was inspired by the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s. “I felt like that was the right register for this kind of very intense, volatile relationship between mother and son.
“If you watch melodramas from the ’50s you often have these kinds of characters that undergo these big metamorphoses and then it’s about their changing fortunes and this really appealed to me. I wanted to have this somehow unlikely — and at the same time inevitable — metamorphosis of this quite larger-than-life character.”
With Boulifa finding non-professionals to play his leads, the script also afforded him the chance to further explore Tangier. “It was a world that I am aware of, and I know a little bit,” he says.
“My parents are from the north, near Tangier. It’s a city that I’ve always found intriguing, let’s say. It’s a complicated place, it’s difficult to penetrate and understand.”
He also has only good things to say about working in Morocco, with its “exceptional” crews. “It’s a very film-friendly place in many ways. It’s partly the French influence, that kind of respect for cinema. It’s something that they really share.”
Collaborating with the same producers who he worked with on The Curse, the experience was so instructive, it was as if Boulifa was fresh out of film school. “I felt like I was making my first feature all over again,” he says.
So what’s next? Does he know? “No,” he says, pointing out that he has barely had time to think in the rush to finish The Damned Don’t Cry before Venice. “A bit of time to recover. Sell the film. And then we’ll see.”
The Damned Don’t Cry will have its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on Thursday
Scroll through the images below of the Venice Film Festival 2022 line-up