Ismael El Iraki is sitting on the terrace of Hotel Excelsior in Venice, sipping a drink as he talks about the most horrifying night of his life. In November 2015, the Moroccan filmmaker was at the Bataclan in Paris when three extremists stormed into the music hall and massacred 90 people who were there to watch American band Eagles of Death Metal. The shooting was part of a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks across the city, the worst on French soil since the Second World War.
El Iraki was at the back of the venue when a gunman started indiscriminately firing in his direction. “Where I was standing, everyone died. Everyone. And he missed me. He missed me by an inch.” Even now, the never-ending sound and smell of gunfire remains. “I saw the guy to my right take it in the neck. I saw the girl to my left ... I will never forget, she will always be with me.”
Five years on, El Iraki has made his feature debut with Zanka Contact, unveiled at the Venice International Film Festival. The film's star, Moroccan singer Khansa Batma, won the Best Actress award for her part.
Zanka Contact is not a recreation of events at the Bataclan. Rather, the film is a violent but vibrant tale of a heroin-addicted musician and a prostitute who fall madly in love. But El Iraki poured everything from that night into the fabric of the story.
After the Bataclan attack, El Iraki was left in a daze. "For three days, I was there. I did not sleep. I was with the dead. I was in the dead realm." Somehow, he took himself to see German rock group Kadavar, the one band that did not cancel their gig that week after the attacks. "They brought me back to life, man," he says. "That concert was unforgettable for everyone who was there."
It would be naive to suggest that one night of head-banging to rock music cured him, though. Until 18 months ago, he was plagued with hallucinations and nightmares. He would see dead people in the street. El Iraki eventually acknowledged that he needed help and began EMDR therapy, a behavioural post-traumatic stress disorder treatment that works by exposing a person repeatedly to the trauma. "The thing is, it's not gone," he says. "I'm not going to presume that it's gone."
A graduate of La Femis film and television school, after moving to France in 2001, El Iraki was working on a music-based script but the events at the Bataclan changed everything. Initially, he wrote directly about the incident, but over time, it changed. He ended up contacting Kadavar, who appear in the film as themselves. His skull ring, left covered in blood from the attack, also features. And so do his nightmares – there is a horrible moment when a snake slithers inside a man's arm.
El Iraki has tackled this horrifying event in other ways, too. He wrote an open-letter on his Facebook page criticising Jesse Hughes, the Eagles of Death Metal frontman. "He said that the Muslims were celebrating. He said that the shooters were on purpose avoiding Muslims … he said that the security at the Bataclan was in on it and that they opened the door for them," says El Iraki. "Muslims died that night. And he has no right to say that."
The filmmaker even witnessed Didi, the head of the Bataclan's security and a devout Muslim, go in and out the venue 11 times that night as the shooters were still firing. "This guy took the biggest risks to save people, including Jesse Hughes's girlfriend. She was shot in the thigh and he carried her out." El Iraki sighs – he loves Hughes's music, but he'd had enough.
Dressed in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt and snakeskin boots, it's obvious how much music influences El Iraki. Five years old, in Rabat, he tried to teach himself guitar. "Because I'm the worst musician on Earth, music to me is magic. It's like they are shamans." In Zanka Contact, the titular song, sung by Batma and arranged by composer Alexandre Tartiere, becomes increasingly resonant. "The love story blooms as the song grows."
His female lead is from “rock royalty”, being the niece of Laarbi Batma, the singer in Moroccan rock band Nass El Ghiwane, whose songs feature in the film. “She has no fear. And at the same time when she sings softly, there is this tremendous amount of emotion.” Playing the fearless Rajae, it was Batma’s first time acting in a movie.
"Hopefully she will do more because it's amazing what this girl can do on camera," El Iraki says.
When it came to casting drug-addled rocker Larsen, El Iraki chose Ahmed Hammoud, who previously starred in 2016's Moroccan-set drama Mimosas. Hammoud could not speak much English or play electric guitar – two prerequisites for the role – but El Iraki was immediately drawn to his spidery gait. "You know who he is?" he says, with a chuckle. "He is Keith Richards in a Monty Python sketch. Like he is straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks."
Larsen, a recluse after years in famed band Snakeskin, finds his mojo again after meeting Rajea. “We wanted to give that thing you never see in movies,” says El Iraki. “An Arab, or someone from the Arab world ... a performance that is not defined by either aggression or overconfidence, but is based on emotion and fragility. A character that does not – and that is super-important – have an inch of aggressiveness or violence in them.”
El Iraki is working on another script after the catharsis of Zanka Contact. But he balks when I suggest he was one of the lucky ones that fateful night in Paris.
"I'm not lucky. I refuse that idea," he says. "Lucky would have been not to be there. I was supposed to go with a friend. I'm lucky that my friend could not come. That … I'm lucky for. Guilt is just there. I mean guilt is just something you have to live with: why me and not them? You ask yourself that every day."