Talal Selhami: “A film like ‘Achoura’ is an opportunity to sell our culture internationally, because fear is universal”

Smyet bak?

Mohammad Selhami.

Smyet mok?

Maissa Bateh.

Nimirou from the map?

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Ashurain Moroccan cinemas since October 12, was to be released in 2020. Is it a curse?

It’s the curse of the jinn Boughattat (the monster of the movie, editor’s note)! We started writing in 2013, but the post-production was very long. We wanted to make a 100% Moroccan film, from shooting to special effects. As a result, we wasted a lot of time and money. We had to accept the failure and turn to Paris for the special effects.

“We wanted to make a 100% Moroccan film, from filming to special effects. As a result, we wasted a lot of time and money”

Talal Selhami

Ashura then toured genre film festivals, before being released in Japan in February 2020 and in Morocco on the day theaters closed due to Covid (laughs). In the meantime, the film was released in Scandinavian countries, in Asia, and was broadcast on HBO in Eastern Europe… We are happy to finally be able to present it to the Moroccan public, in this month of Halloween.

Ashura is the first Moroccan fantasy film, are you the only one interested in this genre?

I think we tend to move towards a cinema that takes itself more seriously, less in entertainment, probably a French heritage of the New Wave. It’s also a cinema that can seem expensive, when it’s possible to do fantasy with the psychological, with what you don’t see.

But in Ashura, we opted for adventure, fantasy that flirts with horror, with special effects, budget. One of the references is ghosts against ghosts by Peter Jackson.

In the film, the djinn Boughattat plays spoilsport during Achoura, do you really want to traumatize the children?

The tradition of Achoura is different depending on the country. The “children’s night”, with its gifts and its festive atmosphere, is specific to Morocco. We said to ourselves that a jinn could invite himself to the party, and we chose Boughattat, who is the demon of sleep (to whom we attribute sleep paralysis, editor’s note). People talk about it on forums, but it’s never represented visually, it’s an oral transmission. However, we are in the era of the image.

The film is not recommended for children under 12, but lots of kids watch Stranger Things, or Marvel… It’s the strength of fantastic cinema, moreover, to appeal to all ages. We are in niche cinema, but very popular.

Does this kind of film echo your own childhood fears?

When I was little, my parents didn’t pay too much attention to what I watched. So I could see The Exorcist and the Spielbergs, which transformed me, because these kinds of films, a child does not look at them in the same way, they go much further than what fantasy offers.

“A child does not watch this kind of film in the same way, it goes much further than what fantasy offers”

Talal Selhami

But the whole point of the film is that adults can’t grow up until they come to terms with what they went through as children. Where the film is very personal is that my biggest fear when I became an adult was to get away from this child who allows me to move mountains. When you grow up, you become like the monster in the movie, you eat the child you were. Placing yourself at the height of a child’s gaze allows you to continue dreaming.

According to one of the characters in the film, “monsters are a reflection of society”… You have four hours.

(Laughs) First of all, from a philosophical point of view, the human is ambivalent: we all have a monstrous part. On the technical side, all the work is to manage to make the creature believable, therefore ultimately human. The special effects allow you to breathe a soul into the monster.

The line between monster and human is blurred from the beginning of the film, which shows a little girl married to an old gentleman. So your fantastic cinema is also social?

Yes, because atrocities like underage marriage create hatred, create monsters. There is also “la maison des Français” in the film, an old colonial building where it was imagined that soldiers had tortured people under the protectorate, creating the monster Boughattat.

Beyond this subtext, all the sets are traces of the protectorate to give a timelessness to the film: we don’t know where and when it happens.

Want to turn Ashura into Halloween?

The American holiday of Halloween was exported in part thanks to the eponymous film. And a movie like Deadly Valentine’s Day invites horror to the lovers’ party. In Ashura, we work with the genre codes that the Americans have established, so even there, it speaks to people. This is an opportunity to sell our culture internationally, because fear is universal.

And in life, you don’t pour boiling water down the sink so as not to wake up the jinns?

I want to believe in the supernatural, but I really don’t. Let’s say I’m not going to tempt fate, so I’m a bit superstitious, yes (laughs). As much as I see all the tricks of a horror movie, when strange things happen to me, it can really scare me. An atmosphere, for example, can make me shiver.

On the financing side, you started with a crowdfunding campaign and it looked pretty bad…

Yes, this stuff is still on the Net, it’s a bit of a stain, especially since it’s friends who gave us money (laughs). Ashura is a response to my first film Glamours in terms of resources: the project cost 11 times more.

We got funds from the CCM, from two TV channels who believed in a different product, from the CNC, from music aid, post-production, private funds, and from Orange Studio, which is co-financing the film. Ashura should have even cost twice its price, but everyone did their part, with the desire that the project materialize.

Where can we see the film?

I discovered the closing of cinemas that I liked, and the Mégarama network closed its doors to us, knowing that it represents 75% of cinemas in Morocco. It was a blow, because we thought Ashura like a popular film, we even dubbed the film in Darija to reach as many audiences as possible.

“The irony is that Ashura came out in Russia in 2021 with 400 copies, and in Morocco we have 6 copies… it’s pretty terrible”

Talal Selhami

Of course, it’s easier to sell a comedy, but a fantastic film, we’ve never tried… Each film is a gamble, you have to give it a chance, and the films supported by the CCM, which have had advances on receipts, should be projected systematically.

It’s not a good signal that we’re sending: we’re trying to make an ambitious, different film, and we’re not giving it a chance. The irony is that Ashura was released in Russia in 2021 with 400 copies, and in Morocco, we have 6 copies… it’s pretty terrible. Fortunately, there are still a few independent and courageous cinemas.

THE PV

You’ll never look at “children’s night” the same way again. The day after a press screening, we find Talal Selhami to talk to us about his latest feature film, Achoura, the first horror film in Morocco. The pitch? Boughattat, nocturnal jinn, invites himself to the Achoura festivities. In the casting, Younes Bouab, Sofiia Manousha, Iván González and Omar Lotfi play four friends caught up in a supernatural episode that had traumatized them in their childhood. After a tour of genre festivals (and a few prizes collected in Europe), the national release of Achoura, on October 12, is curiously shunned by the Mégarama network, which represents the majority of theaters in Morocco. But it would take more to discourage the director who, alongside his projects in the world of video games, is working on an upcoming feature film. Talal Selhami is also working on her first series – fantastic, of course – which could well give back to a Moroccan warrior what belongs to her.

Talal Selhami: “A film like ‘Achoura’ is an opportunity to sell our culture internationally, because fear is universal”