Eight years ago, on a hill near the small village of Imider in arid southeastern Morocco, a community seized control of a water pipeline. For decades, it had drained the local oasis of life-giving water, siphoning it off to the nearby silver mine—the most productive in Africa. The mine, run by a company in which Morocco’s King Mohammed VI owns a majority share, buses in workers from the more distant Tinghir, offering few jobs to the people of Imider.
In 2011, a coalition of locals calling themselves the “Movement on the Road ’96” occupied the hill, shut off the pipeline, and have been encamped there ever since. Their almond-filled oasis has rebounded, but their success is tenuous. They have not won legal water rights, the police still imprison their activists, and the mine continues to pollute the groundwater, the movement says.
Nadir Bouhmouch supported the protesters as an activist for several years before proposing to make a film.
The young Moroccan filmmaker Nadir Bouhmouch, whose documentaries take aim at his country’s heavy-handed authority apparatus, supported the protesters as an activist for several years before proposing to make a film.
Two years later, “Amussu,” or “Movement” in Tamazight, is ready to show the world.
The film is more a story of creation than of oppression, looking at the people of Imider not with pity, as such documentaries often do, but with pride.
Inside Arabia spoke with Bouhmouch over the phone at his home in Marrakech.
Bouhmouch: “I find in Imider a unique model—something that people should look to and find inspiration from. I’ve been disillusioned by activism in the cities. It’s plagued by hierarchy and ego—people who put activism on their business card. In the countryside, pretty much everyone who is part of a movement is there out of desperation and not out of dogmatism.”
“In Imider there’s almost no hierarchy, by virtue of the agraw—the village general assembly. It’s an indigenous form of democracy that existed long before colonialism.”
“I would say in Imider there’s almost no hierarchy, by virtue of the agraw—the village general assembly. It’s an indigenous form of democracy that existed long before colonialism.”
The agraw is the film’s main character, if one can call it that. The community, which is Amazigh (the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa), sits in a circle and a megaphone is passed to whomever wants to speak, no matter their age or gender. Here, the movement makes decisions—what actions to take, what messages to convey to the press.
Bouhmouch: “For me, democracy is a culture, not an institution. [In Imider] you see mothers making their children sit in the agraw once they’re old enough to understand what it’s about. [Democracy] is not something you start doing when you turn 18 years old. The movement is not anarchist by ideology, but it’s anarchistic by virtue of the fact that it’s not hierarchical. Anarchy is dogma. This is just the way our society was organized long before the state existed.”
Bouhmouch adopted agraw culture into the filmmaking process. The community formed an Agraw for Film Production, which managed day-to-day logistics, and the Agraw for Film Writing, which allowed everyone to propose ideas about what and how to film. Workshops ensured that contributors had enough skills and context to understand filmmaking, and made the camera “a friend, not an enemy.”
There are no interviews in “Amussu,” just interactions. Most were spontaneous, but some were prompted to recall earlier, unrecorded conversations. In one such scene, three women sit in a house and knead bread together, lucidly recounting the movement’s mission and the resilience of its people.
After filming, the crew held a series of agraws for editing, where everyone had a say in what to add or cut.
After filming, the crew held a series of agraws for editing, where everyone had a say in what to add or cut. When the film was finished, it was given its world premiere not in any of Morocco’s big cities, but right there in the protest camp.
Bouhmouch: “I try to create a model of film production that’s from the bottom up, where people get to decide how their struggle, their lives, their passions, are expressed. When we have companies driven by profit making these decisions, it often twists the reality and makes these films irrelevant to those same people. When they have a direct say, they can make sure it reflects their reality and what they want people to know about them.”
Working like this demands deep trust, according to Bouhmouch. He drew influence from Jorge Sanjines, a Bolivian director who worked cooperatively with Quechua communities, and the 1981 film “Two Laws,” made in collaboration with an Aboriginal Australian tribe, at its request.
However, this approach could allow subjects to paint a picture prettier than reality. There is no pretense of neutrality in “Amussu,” which could be problematic if the film’s agenda was not achieving so basic a right as “water and a dignified life,” as one Imider woman put it.
Voices of Izlan
“Amussu” centers the vibrant creative life behind the protest, and how art has sustained it. The camp hosted a festival of poetry, comic theater, and song, calling it “the other side of resistance.” Izlan, traditional Amazigh poetry sung by raw, evocative voices, courses through the film.
Bouhmouch: “Before colonialism, before the state was able to control the entire territory, very few people could write. Poets or storytellers played this very important role as carriers of memory, as communicators. [Izlan is] a political opinion piece, a historical essay.
One particularly apt izlan in the film sings, “One ate until full, then threw the bone beside me. In the end, I was the one they accused.”
Bouhmouch: “This kind of culture is diminishing. Text and written culture is predominant and hegemonic, and it’s seen as more valuable or more accurate. In fact, it’s just as prone to bias as oral culture. I’m trying to find my own language—or our own language—based on the mediums of storytelling that we’ve had for a very long time.”
The film’s sonic landscape, weaving between izlan, conversation, and silence, is spacious like the land and patient like the people.
Bouhmouch: “It’s an environmental film, so the environment is literally the music of the film. We don’t need emotional music to tell us how we should feel. Between nature, the wind, silence, and this music, you should get a sense of the place, and who lives in it.
A Different Lens
“Women are central to “Amussu,” but as strong, active agents of change. Amazigh society is traditionally matriarchal… Women are more rooted in the land and have more stake in it.”
Moroccan films often overemphasize themes that play well for the Western perspective: “women being oppressed, Islam, or terrorism,” Bouhmouch said. Women are central to “Amussu,” but as strong, active agents of change. Amazigh society is traditionally matriarchal and jobs in cities are pulling more men from the land. In struggles over the environment and land, he explains, “you tend to find women at the forefront. Women are more rooted in the land and have more stake in it.”
Likewise, such films tend to show state violence and misery.
Bouhmouch: “We should see them, but we often miss out on some very important things. In “Amussu,” there is state violence, [although] you never really see it. But you’ve already seen this kind of thing. There’s an ellipsis there.”
It is almost more powerful to see the violence ripple. After an Imider activist returns from imprisonment, his friend laments, “It’s a shame that someone gets unjustly imprisoned for a just and legitimate cause, and once released, he finds his mother buried underground.”
Filming such a volatile issue is difficult in Morocco. Bouhmouch’s documentary about Morocco’s 2011 pro-democracy movement, “My Makhzen and Me,” was banned from being screened in the country. So far, the government has said nothing about “Amussu.”
Bouhmouch: “The state likes to play a balancing act. If we stop this thing, if we arrest this person, if we censor this—how much damage to the state will happen? And if the damage is greater than the benefit, they won’t do anything. We actually want [the film] to make some damage on the state. So maybe we’re not as protected as we think we are at the moment.
“In the protest camp, it’s a liberated zone; the police don’t actually go there. In the oasis, you’re amongst the trees, you’re well hidden, [but] the state’s eyes are present in the village. You have to film like you’re in a guerrilla war, basically.”
“[But] we didn’t want the film to have that militant aesthetic—shaky camera with police running after you. This aesthetic draws attention to itself more than to the cause it’s supposed to be documenting.”
The film is calm, well-composed, and visually stunning. From the camp’s hilltop vantage point, we see sweeping backdrops of rugged terrain and snow-capped mountains. As a dog scrounges for food, we catch a glimpse between the hills of the hulking, silent silver mine. Down in the oasis, it’s glorious green, bursting with white almond flowers in spring. In the dim light of a stone house in the protest camp, two girls hunch over a French textbook.
The silver mine now brings water from elsewhere, but it would prefer to reopen the much closer Imider pipeline. When the movement stages protests on the nearby road, they are in a remote rural expanse, with only passing cars to see their placards.
Bouhmouch: “There aren’t many witnesses, but the movement ensures that there are witnesses by making sure that everything is documented. [It is] armed with cameras and these images are going online, whether it’s a protest or a snowball fight in the camp in the winter.
“[The state is] playing an active role in trying to break the movement from within . . . trying to use people’s friends and families. After you have the New York Times covering you, violence is not one of the best [strategies], because if you use violence again, it’s going to be in the media again. Sometimes it’s much more effective to use very discreet moves. Time is on the side of the state. It knows that you will break with time, because you’re weak. If it leaves something to stay for very long, it will eventually go away.
“The movement is there now and as long as it’s there, we should all support it. It shouldn’t always be there; people deserve to get their rights. I hope that’s the way it stops, and not in any other way. The objective is not to be protesting, but to protest against something. It’s a means, not an end.”
The movement’s voice has reached far, even garnering coverage in the New York Times. At the same time, it is cultivating a wide network—indigenous North Americans, European anarchists, North African environmental groups—and has spoken in solidarity with Morocco’s Hirak al-Rif activists of the north. Yet, even as it earns international recognition, the future of this beautiful oasis is uncertain.