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Blue Caftan film 2023
Blue Caftan, 2023(Film still)

Blue Caftan, the heart-wrenching gay love story set in Morocco

Filmmaker Maryam Touzani discusses making an acclaimed gay film in a country where homosexuality is illegal

It begins with two minutes of the colour blue. As the opening credits unfold, the camera glides across a piece of cloth like it’s a rippling mass of water, eventually revealing fingers caressing and inspecting the material. “The blue is a blue that’s changing,” explains Maryam Touzani. “Sometimes it’s lighter, sometimes it’s darker. It took months of research to find this blue.” The 42-year-old Moroccan filmmaker conducted tests involving lights, contrasting backgrounds, and eventual locations, meaning that her house was flooded with bits of blue fabric. “I understood later that blue is the colour of freedom. When you see the sky or ocean, there’s unlimited possibilities.”

Behold, The Blue Caftan, a heart-wrenching, Salé-set drama written, directed, and stitched together by Touzani. The aforementioned fingers, the viewer soon learns, belong to Halim (Saleh Bakri), a caftan maker whose marriage to Mina (Lubna Azabal) is as knotty as the threads he needles. In Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal, Halim is publicly in a long-term relationship with Mina; in private, though, he visits a bathhouse to have sex with men. Quietly, Mina accepts Halim’s infidelity, until a young apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), introduces romance to his same-sex flirtations with Halim.

“Love escapes all definition,” Touzani tells me in March on a video call from her home in Casablanca. “When we think we know love, we don’t know love, because love is something that’s porous. There isn’t one way of loving.” When faced with a love triangle, Mina doesn’t balk; she considers whether Youssef can be integrated into their lives. “Mina doesn’t stay with Halim out of social reasons. She stays with him because she loves the human being that he is. When this young man arrives, he brings another emotion. Mina has to face her fears; Halim has had sex with other men, but this is his first time falling in love with another man.”

With a background in journalism, Touzani has always thoroughly researched her projects. Her debut feature, 2019’s Adam, was inspired by an incident in Tangier: a pregnant woman knocked on her family’s door, begging for help; she was looked after until giving birth. With The Blue Caftan, Touzan based Halim on men she met in Morocco who had to disguise their sexuality. The caftan itself was more of a personal touch: her mother owned a caftan that, like the garment crafted by Halim, is designed to be passed down from generation to generation.

“I grew up seeing my mother wear this beautiful caftan that’s exactly the same embroidery as the one in the film, only it’s black,” Touzani notes. “I tried it on so many times but it was too big on me. The day I grew up and it fit, she gave it to me. I felt the beauty of this transmission. I had a feeling I was wearing her emotions.” The director only wears the caftan on special occasions, the last one being at Cannes, where The Blue Caftan won the FIPRESCI Prize. “She talked about the months it took to make it, and how the person who made it, their soul is implemented in this fabric.”

We joke about the fact I’m wearing a tacky cap with the word “PAVEMENT” written across it. “For the price of one handmade caftan you can have maybe four caftans made with a machine in no time. But the value isn’t comparable. One is made by humanity, the other a machine.”

As a screenwriter, Touzani has a number of co-writing credits on features by her husband, Nabil Ayouch, including Casablanca Beats and Razzia (she played the lead role). While Ayouch also worked on the script for The Blue Caftan, Touzani noticeably has a more delicate, patient approach to her storytelling: much of The Blue Caftan takes place indoors to heighten the intimacy between the central trio, whether it’s the shifting angles of the eye contact when all three are sat around a table, or the eroticism of two men stroking the same piece of cloth when both bodies are within touching distance.

“When I write a scene, I close my eyes, almost,” she says. “The close-ups and silences were there in my brain from the start. I wanted a very organic relationship to this fabric. I wanted the sensuality of two hands touching. I wanted us to experience this tangerine being opened before it’s in her mouth. I wanted us to feel the juice of that tangerine in her mouth… What I love in cinema is taking my time to focus on the details.”

Touzani, then, possesses an old-school approach to rhythm, favouring long takes over TikTok-ready montages. The film is, of course, channelling Halim’s artisanry methods and his celebration of traditions – well, some of them. “Halim’s torn because he lives in a contradiction,” the director says. “He’s trying to keep this dying trade alive because he wants it to continue, but at the same time it’s a tradition that’s keeping him from being the man he truly wants to be. It’s not a clash; he prides himself in a certain modernity. There’s a place for tradition and modernity at the same time, as long as it doesn’t keep us from being who we are. Tradition can be beautiful if it’s not a barrier.”

In Morocco, The Blue Caftan is scheduled to hit theatres in June, a month after its UK date, and Touzani isn’t expecting any protests. “I wasn’t asked to make any changes, which I would not have made anyway,” she says. “Homosexual love is something we don’t talk about in my society. But I really feel there’s a desire to have a dialogue about this, because, in a healthy society, you need to have a dialogue about everything.”

Touzani’s hopes of a peaceful release is partly connected to screenings at the Marrakech International Film Festival in November. While some conservative viewers let Touzani know of their displeasure, others were full of praise. “It’s true that these kind of characters don’t exist in Moroccan cinema,” she says. “The fact that Halim and Yussef exist and could be seen on the big screen, a lot of people were touched.”

The Blue Caftan is out in UK cinemas on May 5