Review: ‘Sans bruit, les figurants du desert’

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Sans bruit, les figurants du desert
(France/Poland, 64 min.)
Dir. Collectif MML


Ouarzazate (“noiseless” in Berber), a city of around 71,000 inhabitants in south-central Morocco, is a magnet for Hollywood directors seeking convincing desert and mountain landscapes for their Bible and war films. It’s used as a stand-in for pretty much any sandy, ‘eastern’ locale, but particularly for the Middle East and south Asia. Locals are cast as extras—terrorists, disciples, members of angry or grieving mobs. Many make careers of it.

Sans bruit, les figurants du désert, from Collectif MML (Michal Madracki, Maciej Madracki and Gilles Lepore), pays tribute to the actors of Ouarzazate, a kind of cinematic underclass that makes its living acting out Western fantasies of an amorphous Other. The film’s setting, themes and somewhat experimental approach invite comparisons with Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas (2016) and Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015), but Sans bruit is a much more grounded in its subject and decidedly less self-reflexive. In other words, while it is a film about filmmaking, it’s not overly concerned about power relations or what it means to be a European filmmaker making a film in Morocco. While directors do a fair bit of playful staging—casting some locals for a low-budget rendition of a scene from the Odyssey involving a very unconvincing cyclops, interviewing actors against pure black backdrops rather than in naturalistic settings—it’s the actors (playing themselves) who make the film.

Among them is Malika, a woman in her late 60s who has acted in over 200 films since the 1970s, her success partially due to her aptitude for crying. She reluctantly agrees to demonstrate her talent, first conjuring a memory of “humiliation” from her own past, then sobbing with truly impressive sincerity. This, certainly the most moving scene in Sans bruit, could stand as a metaphor for the tragic absurdity of the actors of Ouarzazate: that their talents, which involve the harnessing of genuine emotion for dramatic and narrative effect, are generally put to use in the most ideologically charged, orientalist American and European movies, involving their literal humiliation in one way or another. One question that the directors put to each of their interviewees is whether they would like to see their life adapted as a film. The question is generally dodged, laughed off or met with modesty. But I daresay those stories would make for much better films than, say, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, shot in Ouarzazate). Sans bruit is a start, at least.

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