Moroccan director Maryam Touzani's Adam is a beautiful film about a friendship between an unwed pregnant hairdresser and a widowed mother that is playing in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.
The idea for Adam had been germinating inside Touzani for a long time. After she finished studying journalism at university in London, she went to Tangiers to live for a few months at her parents' house. "One day, a young woman came knocking at our door looking for work," she recalls. "My mum quickly understood that she wasn't looking for a job, but as the woman was heavily pregnant my mother was worried about sending her away. At that time, it was illegal for a hospital to assist unwed women in giving birth, so my parents decided to take her in."
The woman stayed at their house until the day she gave birth. The day after, the mother went to the authorities and gave the child up for adoption, which she had planned to do throughout her pregnancy. "I experienced how this woman was trying to suffocate her maternal instinct," says Touzani, a first-time feature film director. "She ignored her belly growing and tried to pretend that nothing was going on. The whole experience moved me very deeply."
About three years ago, when Touzani was pregnant with her first child with her husband, acclaimed Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch (Horses of God), it made her remember this experience and she started writing Adam.
Shining a light on unwed mothers
In the film, on which Ayouch serves as producer, the heavily pregnant Samia (Nisrin Erradi) is knocking on doors asking for work. She has left her family and gone to Casablanca so she can secretly have a baby, then give it up for adoption. Afterwards she intends to return home and lead the "normal life" that would not be available to a single, unwed mother, because she would be seen as damaged goods by the community and shunned by friends and family.
"In a country like mine, it's the biggest shame for a woman to have a child out of wedlock," says Touzani. "She doesn't want to disappoint her parents so she cannot tell the truth."
Touzani deliberately doesn't reveal how Samia became pregnant. Was there a boyfriend who ran away? Was she raped? These are questions that run through watching minds. For the director, born in 1980 in Tangiers, the ambiguity is necessary because "it's important for an audience coming from a country such as mine, to not judge", she says. "If you give her a past, it would be like she is guilty of something, or not guilty of something and that is really not what the film is about."
The set-up sees Samia taken in by a baker called Abla (Lubna Azabal), who lives alone with her eight-year-old daughter Warda (Douae Belkhaouda). Abla reveals societies' fears over unwed mothers in how she tries to shield her daughter from Samia, and in this more subtle way, societal customs and pressures are revealed and discussed. "The film is about Samia and Abla's meeting and their personal journey towards things that are essential for them in their lives," says Touzani.
What's intriguing and not immediately striking is that Abla is also a single mother, but as a widow, she doesn't suffer from the same sense of shame. Instead, she encounters a whole different set of problems as a relativly young widow in Moroccan society; problems that force her to close off emotionally.
"The widowed mother is not fine and that was something I was very surprised to discover," says Touzani. "If a widow is young, then she becomes prey. A lot of men think that she is available because there is no man in her house, and being a widow, she is free to do what she wants with her body."
Commenting on society
As Samia's belly grows, both women change in subtle ways; ways that will empower them to move forward with their lives. It's a story of a powerful friendship told with an affectionate gaze. "You can't always be strong. You can't always face your parents. Sometimes you need other people to help you as well," Touzani says.
Another key aspect in the film is the bakery located in the medina in Casablanca. It's another important character in its own way. Samia, who was raised in a village, still bakes traditional breads in the old-fashioned way, by hand. But commercial necessity and need to maximise profits mean Abla no longer does this. This is a change in real Moroccan society that pains the director because "the machine-made version doesn't taste good".
But as with everything in Adam, there is also a greater significance and comment on society attached to this. The director uses food to show the value in tradition. As such, the film becomes more complex and subtle in its analysis of Moroccan society. "I think there are so many beautiful things about our culture that are disappearing because modernity takes over and everybody is always in a hurry to do things. So I really wanted to bring this bread back through the process."
And the director does so in the most wonderful way by creating a warm film that talks about maternity and the problems facing women in society – not just mothers – without being confrontational or aggressive.
Adam screens at Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 21 and 23