Members of a Moroccan dance troup find themselves lost in the woods in this spellbinding drama


Source: Red Sea International Film Festival


Dirs: Afef Ben Mahmoud, Khalil Benkirane. Morocco/Tunisia/Belgium/France/Qatar/Norway/Saudi Arabia. 2023. 101mins

A transporting drama from first-time feature directors Afef Ben Mahmoud and Khalil Benkirane, Backstage sees a contemporary dance troupe getting lost in the forest – and finding themselves in the process. A meditation on the challenges of the artistic life (which include getting older, balancing work and relationships, and coping with the fierce demands of one’s craft) the film weaves a spell from its opening frames, growing more lovely and thought-provoking as its characters drift into a nocturnal netherworld in which their deep-seated fears and desires start rising to the surface. 

 A meditation on the challenges of the artistic life 

Selected for Venice’s Giornate degli Autori section, Backstage will screen as part of the Red Sea Film Festival, its ghostly night-time photography well-suited for the big screen. Co-director Ben Mahmoud leads a formidable cast that includes Sondos Belhassen and Saleh Bakri, and the picture should be a favourite among discriminating arthouse viewers — especially those who love a little contemporary dance in their cinema.

Calling themselves Without Borders, a celebrated Moroccan dance troupe is back out touring after years off the road due to the pandemic. During this penultimate performance of this current leg, which is taking place in a small Middle Atlas community, featured dancer Aida (Ben Mahmoud) is severely injured on stage by her lover (and fellow dancer) Hedi (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), causing concern that they will have to cancel the final show. In desperation, the company’s director Nawel (Belhassen) loads everyone on the bus to hunt down the one doctor in the area who might be able to help. When their vehicle blows out two tyres in the middle of a thick forest, they have no other option but to walk to the doctor’s village.

Faintly recalling A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Into The Woods — indelible works about the forest as a place of spiritual renewal and self-discovery — this dreamlike narrative opens with a lengthy segment from the troupe’s enrapturing show. LED screens behind the dancers depict the natural world in all its beauty and fury. Soon, though, Aida and her cohorts are stranded in actual nature, the moonlit wilderness inexplicably dredging up something from within the characters. Long-held resentments, surprising revelations and heartfelt confessions start to pour out — not to mention that Nawel and others often launch into spontaneous dance routines, their bodies twirling and twisting as an outward expression of their inner longings. It is almost as if, wandering through these spooky woods, an untamed, unguarded version of themselves has been let loose.

Cinematographer Benjamin Rufi does arresting work both on the stage and in nature, capturing the drama of Without Borders’ dynamic performance while also creating an atmosphere of unease and endless possibility once the troupe enters the forest. A bewitching combination of shadows and light, the woods at night have hints of menace — we hear the shrieks of animals off in the distance — but the mood is primarily contemplative, with Aida and Hedi discovering an opportunity to finally discuss their faltering relationship. They are not the only ones at a crossroads, however, with Nawel bedevilled by odd visions that are presented matter-of-factly to the audience. (Those visions may be connected to Hassan, played by Bakri, who, like Nawel, is concerned about what his future holds as an older member of the company.)

Without Borders may be tackling essential questions about life, art and the impermanence of everything, but Backstage treats these matters with a light touch, taking the ruminations seriously but suggesting that the exhilaration of creativity can be a balm against such worries. Even the irony of the troupe delivering a passionate paean to nature in their show — only to wind up in woods that unmoor them — is handled gracefully. Ben Mahmoud (who wrote the screenplay) and Benkirane refuse to satirise the troupe’s artistic aspirations, instead examining how collectives can produce incredible work, while also occasionally getting on each other’s nerves. (Anyone who has been part of a touring musical or theatre production will recognise the irritable backbiting that goes on between the characters.)

The ensemble (which combines actors and professional dancers) effortlessly conveys the sense of performers who know each other intimately, simulating the feeling of a fractious family threatening to break apart. Backspace has such affection for these characters, though, that it convincingly provides them not just a path out of those woods but a way back to one another, reconfirming the bonds of these tightly-knit artists. Not every member of Without Borders will get a happy ending, but they all will be rejuvenated by their fantastical odyssey. Viewers may very well feel similarly.

Production companies: Lycia Productions, Mesanges Films

International sales: Lycia Productions 

Producers: Khalil Benkirane, Afef Ben Mahmoud

Screenplay: Afef Ben Mahmoud

Cinematography: Benjamin Rufi

Production design: Fatma Madani, Redouane Nasserdine

Editing: Rawchen Mizouri, Afef Ben Mahmoud, Skander Ben Ammar

Music: Steve Shehan

Main cast: Afef Ben Mahmoud, Saleh Bakri, Sondos Belhassen, Sofiane Ouissi, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Hajiba Fahmy