Dir/scr: Jillali Ferhati. Morocco-Qatar. 2013. 87mins
An atmospheric sense of ripe melodrama pervades the impressively staged Pillow Secrets (Sarirou Al Assrar), a Moroccan set film that had its world premiere at the Dubai Film Festival. Its story of dark secrets, sexuality and pressures of society may well familiar at times, but it is staged with mood and precision and blessed with a powerful lead performance by Fatima Zahra Bennacer as a tough woman who runs a local brothel with an iron fist.
The film does lapse into melodrama at times, but there are also some memorably staged scenes, with all of the actresses especially fine.
The sexual undercurrents and a couple of risqué shots may make it a problematic release for some Middle Eastern territories, but it has the lush shooting style and heady dramatic story to make it appealing to other international film festivals. Some of the plot strands don’t quite tie together, but there is much to enjoy in the mood and sense of period location.
The film opens with a young woman entering a morgue and identifying the battered body of the woman who was her mother. The shock of seeing her takes her back into her past, when she lived in the ‘Big House’ with her mother Zahia (Bennacer). In truth the building was a boarding house converted in a brothel and Zahia ruled the building – and in fact much of the neighbourhood – with a stern sense of anger that would tolerate no-one standing against her.
As a little girl known only as the daughter of Zahia the prostitute she has a tough time making friends, with most local mothers forbidding their daughters to spend time with her. But she does find a real sense of warmth and family with the various prostitutes, and strikes up a gentle friendship with a local boy her own age, who – dressed in over oversize jackets and trousers – is like her something of a misfit at school.
But drama is never far away from the brothel. Zahia has tussles with local smugglers of alcohol and cigarettes; the building is raided by police and the prostitutes jailed for a spell, and as a dramatic climax to the film Zahia finally reveals to Wafael (the girl’s real name is never spoken until the final scenes) the truth behind her birth. The film does lapse into melodrama at times, but there are also some memorably staged scenes, with all of the actresses especially fine.
The sense of bonding between the prostitutes is especially evident in a beautifully shot scene as they wash themselves in a hot and steamy bath house and sing together, with the song’s line “I am not a libertine” almost a mantra for how they view themselves and their life together.
Production company: Heracles Productions
Sales contact/Producer Jillali Ferhati, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cinematography: Kamal Derkaoui
Editor: Brahim Barahamou
Music: Louis Mancaux
Main cast: Fatima Zahra Bennacer, Rhita Belkhadir, Majdouline Raoula