A still from the film "The Mother of All Lies"
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘The Mother of All Lies’ Review: A hand-crafted tale of shocking buried secrets

‘The Mother of All Lies’ Review: A hand-crafted tale of shocking buried secrets

A still from the film "The Mother of All Lies"

While photographs may be lies, and we’re all probably taking and distributing too many photos of ourselves in the age of smartphones, there’s something to be said for having these accessible mementos of a life lived, at least as a reference for later, when it might ask. loudly the proof of your actual existence. And while audiovisual evidence isn’t necessary to remember everything, there can be an extent to which the absence of documentation can prove to be an existential burden. It can be difficult to build an identity when your memories are unreliable. If you don’t have a visual record of yourself as a child, your parents or guardians at the time, or what your home was like, how far can you trust what you think you remember?

This is one of the central ideas driving Moroccan director Asmae El Moudir’s fascinating and inventive Un Certain Regard entry ‘The Mother of All Lies’. Her film begins with a desire to know why he only has one photograph of her from her childhood, and why the girl presented in her picture seems to be so different from her. From that starting point, she goes so far as to recreate her family’s home and neighborhood in miniature form, as a means of interrogating both personal and national history.

Given the exploration of a country’s trauma through the use of diorama models, “The Mother of All Lies” will inevitably draw some comparisons with “The Missing Picture” (2013), Rithy Panh’s film which recreated the atrocities of Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. It’s a markedly different film, as that film was able to use a significant amount of archival footage, which ‘The Mother of All Lies’, as part of its own setup, is unable to do at all. .

As an adult, El Moudir was troubled by an issue regarding her childhood, specifically the fact that she only ever had one photograph of herself as a child. She’s never been convinced it’s really her. The photo is of smiling children sitting in a courtyard. At the bottom of the photograph, almost out of view, a shy-looking girl can be seen sitting on a bench. This shy girl is El Moudir, her mother insists, who first gave her photo to her daughter around 12 years old, following her envy of the wealth of holiday photos shown to El Moudir from a childhood friend.

This perceived lie was a key conflict with her mother during her teenage years. While her mother kept insisting that it really was her in the photo, El Moudir managed to pressure her to explain why apparently it is the only photo from her adolescence: under the pretext that it is forbidden by their religion, the grandmother of El Moudir, the strict head of the family, refused to have any human representation inside his house. So no photographs.

When his parents are about to leave the house in Casablanca where they had lived all their lives (with their grandmother), the opportunity presents itself for El Moudir to dig deeper into more buried truths of the house’s history. The material of photography is used by the filmmaker as a catalyst to bring out other memories or stories that she has treated with suspicion. Sure enough, the reason for her grandmother’s rejection of the photograph runs much deeper than the previously cited reason. And unsurprisingly, the matriarch is a reluctant subject for a documentary, though she’s ultimately on screen for a considerable amount of “The Mother of All Lies,” though she often stares into the camera with visible disdain. At one point, she repeatedly rejects El Moudir calling herself a director, insisting instead that she is a journalist; there is a suggestion that such a job title may be the reason why she agrees to any participation in the project.

Another photograph also pushes El Moudir’s documentary to go beyond just family secrets, to also explore the buried memories of his country: that of Fatima, a local girl who died on June 20, 1981, during a national strike during the Bread revolt which was driven by price hikes of basic food supplies. Though her body was never recovered, thanks to coverage of police and military activity in their neighborhood that day, a nearby cemetery—near the filmmaker’s family home—was unveiled to honor the victims.

Watching a news report on the inauguration, El Moudir is particularly moved by the portrait of Fatima held by a relative. She died in 1981—at the same age as when El Moudir wanted a photo of her—in the same streets the director would have starred in as a 12-year-old in the 1990s. The idea behind the removal of the bodies of victims, such as that of Fatima, was to erase, as quickly as possible, all traces of the unrest, so as to stop the dissemination of any information in contradiction with the official line. According to the unions, there have been more than 600 fatalities since that time, although only 66 deaths have been officially reported.

The director has a bodily form, even if no document of her childhood, while the loved ones of Fatima have no body but have the precious testimony of her existence in the form of a photograph. “Fatima has become a memory without a body”, as the director recounts in her story, while she herself was “a body without memories”. There is only one photo of the real horrors of the day of Fatima’s death, and she is not believed to be present in it: a black and white image of corpses and abandoned bicycles on a street. All other evidence was destroyed and the bodies removed from the site. And there’s no national archive with anything else for reference.

As we see the family’s real home being constantly cleaned, El Moudir collaborates with his father, a bricklayer, in another location where much of the documentary takes place, though his assistance and dedication to the project don’t spare him from interrogation that the other family members receive. Within a sound stage, they meticulously recreate their home and Casablanca neighborhood in the form of a miniature set, from memory, as they have little or no photographic references to draw from. Additional decorators and technicians were enlisted to help bring life and light to the dioramas and to enhance the details to make them as realistic as possible, in order to help draw the best answers from any witnesses of the model sets.

The director brings the rest of the family into the space, as well as some close friends and extended family. Throughout the film, they’re asked probing questions about long-running stories riddled with holes, or prompted to rationalize their continued silence regarding what they may have seen over the years; why they purposely forgot and if they now have a better sense of the events they experienced decades apart.

Some of the players involved also participate in the miniature reconstruction of their own houses or significant local spaces. In one memorable sequence, an attendee is visibly distressed to see a model version of the prison cell in which he suffered in the 1980s. But there is a hint of catharsis through the process, at least for some of the actors reunited. And while there is a stylized approach to the larger film, particularly in the way El Moudir’s camera enters and exits the model sets, one gets the sense that the emotional reactions of his interviewees are genuinely spontaneous.

The extent to which truths are eventually unearthed and their exact nature is obviously best left undisclosed. And while much of the film is built on repressed grief, there are moments of celebration, reconciliation, and even laughter. In some cases, there is comedy with tragedy. You’ll probably feel bad for El Moudir’s artist friend who was brought onto the stage one day to produce a glass portrait of her grumpy grandmother, knowing all too well that she’ll probably hate the end result. But the extent to which the old woman completely—and almost immediately—demolishes the portrait of her with her walking stick is truly something to behold, just like this film.

Grade: B

“The Mother of All Lies” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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