Traitors betrays Sean Gullette’s switch from actor to director
It was love that first took Sean Gullette to Morocco. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Gullette became the darling of the American independent film scene when he starred in Pi in 1998. Having come up with the story idea, he played the mathematician who believes that numbers are the language of the universe, in a film written and directed by his film studies friend Darren Aronofsky. Despite roles in Requiem for a Dream and Happy Accidents, he never matched the success of his debut. His work in front of the camera became more sporadic, but he never gave up on acting entirely, even having a small role in Rock the Casbah (also playing at DIFF). However, his life changed when he met the visual artist Yto Barrada, whom he later married.
“My wife is an artist whose work includes photography,” says Gullette. “She had been going home to Tangier from Paris, where she had been living, to take pictures and make artwork. At a certain point, she found a beautiful cinema that was about to go out of business in Tangier. Being the inspired artist that she is, she thought she is going to spend the next 10 years of our lives saving the cinema and creating a non-profit organisation.”
It was through the cinema that Gullette met young locals and found a spirit of rebellion and an energy that would inspire him to make Traitors. “One of the unexpected side effects of the cinema was the cafe with free internet, especially with the hip kids, kids who are musicians and artists, who felt at home there. They would come, buy one Coke, which would pay their rent to use the internet to watch pop videos for eight hours. I ignored them at first.”
But when sitting in Cannes in 2010, he was offered financing to make a short film for the Sharjah Biennial. He knew he wanted to make a film about the younger generation: “One of the themes of the Sharjah Biennial in 2011 was on keywords, traders with a D, or traitors with a T, themes of betrayal, double layers, which have an interesting statement; the first thing I thought is that Traders is a good name for a punk band.”
With his insider knowledge of Tangier, he says that he took it upon himself “in classic occidental fashion, to invent something that was science-fiction at the time – an all-girl rock band, who had inflammatory lyrics, who sang exactly what they thought and were afraid of nothing”.
He combined this with the story of the singer discovering a stash of love letters in her mother’s drawer. Presuming that her mother has had an affair, she’s distraught, only to later discover that the letters were actually written by her insular, non-communicative father. “The film went to the New York Film Festival and filmmaker friends said this feels like the fragment of a bigger movie. It was a strange thing to say and I didn’t get it first and it took me some time to get what they meant.”
He returned to Sharjah for financing and successfully applied for a grant. To make the narrative more suited to a feature-length film, Gullette drastically altered the dramatic arc of the story. The film, which was warmly received at its Moroccan premiere at the Marrakech Film Festival, once again starts off as a tale of an all-girl punk rock band, but this time, instead of finding letters in her mother’s drawer, Malika is in need of money to fund a demo record. A producer is interested in her band, Traitors, after hearing the demo of a song I’m Bored with Morocco. Trying to raise cash to fund the record leads her to accept a job as a drug mule.
“I started to hear stories about girls who were operating as drug mules, which is hardly surprising in itself, since the North African drug trade is extremely creative and tries every single possible technique that you can think of to get their merchandise into the Schengen zone,” says the director.
“I heard some very specific stories and then I began to meet some young women who had got out, who wanted to get out of that world, and getting out wasn’t that easy, and so I began to realise that the stakes were quite high. That presented itself as something dramatic.”
• Traitors screens at the cinema at the Mall of the Emirates on Monday at 9.30pm and Wednesday at 3.30pm
Updated: December 7, 2013 04:00 AM