Moroccan Auteur Hakim Belabbes Recounts Poetic Tales in ‘Collapsed Walls’

Moroccan auteur Hakim Belabbes’ haunting memory piece “Collapsed Walls” is formed of fragments from the cycle of life as experienced by the residents of his birth place. The unconventional drama premieres in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition at the Cairo Film Festival. Marking the apotheosis of the helmer’s lyrical, episodic style, the film plays like a mesmerizing take on “1001 Arabian Nights.”

The middle son in a family of 11 children, Belabbes was born in Bejaad, where his father owned the only movie theater. His hometown has served as the main location of most of his films for two simple reasons. He says: “Firstly, my stories originate in that space, so I don’t need to scout. And spaces have their own memory, their own soul. Secondly, Bejaad feels like my own studio (my little Cinecittà), where I have access to pretty much anything I need for my production and the people are always welcoming to me.”

The film’s title was inspired by late night walks and talks Belabbes shared with the cinema’s projectionist. He says: “He would always make the point about the horrors people inflict on each other that we could witness if ‘those old walls were to collapse.’ That stuck with me for years.”

The 18 different stories that comprise the film all relate to the director’s childhood memories. They represent events he experienced, tales he heard, or situations he imagined. Perhaps the most entertaining episode, about a flying car, was inspired by a story from his adolescence told by a serial exaggerator who didn’t care that people knew he was lying. Belabbes says, “He was always going to tell you the colorful story he wanted to tell you. We all wished we had his capacity to imagine the things he did.”

As usual in Belabbes’ films, the cast is a mixture of professional actors and those who may never have stepped in front of a camera before. He says: “A performance by a non-actor can crystalize the truth in a filmed moment, sometimes in the first take, when everyone is at their most vulnerable. That can be a gift that strengthens the performances of everyone in a scene.”

Some of the non-professionals represent the last artisans of their craft. We see an elderly gentleman with a lively, intelligent face loading trays into a deep oven. He’s one of the few traditional bakers left in town. Also unforgettable is the aging tailor Abdelkader Al Zaim, who plays Oum Kulthum’s songs to his caged birds so they can learn her melodies. Belabbes recalls: “The day we shot with him, he refused to work past 5 p.m. The remaining time of the day he loved spending on quiet walks with his wife in our hometown forest. So, I asked to tag along. He agreed and we ended up shooting the forest sequence, which, of course, was not in the script. That was a gift.”

The film also incorporates a wide range of diegetic music, performed live or played on cassette, which has a deep connection to the spirit of the space and the people. Belabbes says: “The music is the music I grew up with, either in my house, in the films I watched in our movie theater or the music I listened to in my father’s store. He used to sell records. I also used some of the traditional Sufi chants that are specific to my hometown and the trance music of the local artisan craftsmen.”

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