We met in a quiet corner of a cafe in Harlem, and while Tala and I had exchanged a handful of emails, and spoken briefly via Skype a few weeks earlier, this was our first in-person meeting. She greeted me with a hug, and told me she felt as if we’d known each other for years. I felt it too, an instant familiarity. Tala is warm and sincere, and upon meeting her it is easy to imagine welcoming her into your home and life, as the Elgounad family depicted in her film had done. Spending the afternoon with her felt more like catching up with an old friend than a work assignment. As old friends do, we spoke about our families, my recent break-up, and the sometimes impossible choice between relationships and creative work, amidst the jangle of silverware and weekend brunch chatter. We ordered a fruit plate, tea for Tala, coffee for me, and, remembering why I had come, I turned on my recorder.
Alijah Case: Let’s start from the beginning. What first brought you to this story and this community?
Tala Hadid: Many, many, many, years ago — I was in my early twenties — I was traveling in the south of Morocco. I stopped for a night in a valley in the High Atlas Mountains. There were a few, maybe a string of six villages, in this valley. When you arrive in this place, after a long and arduous journey, up about eight hours from Marrakech, at some point the asphalt ends. You arrive and you’re struck by this massive landscape: the mountains, the valleys, the streams, everything is silent. You can hear the sound of villages farther down the valley carried over the wind. It’s very impressive.
I thought, oh wow, this place is sublime. I came back a second time and I met a few people from the village who were very gracious. I was invited into homes on that second trip, and on the drive up — a very long drive up — I saw they were mining the mountain. They were exploding the mountain because the State was building a road. So we saw them at work and I thought: this will change. From that second trip, I thought I would have to come back and learn more about this place, record life there, because who knows how long it will be like this.
I left again, you know for life, other projects. But it was always there at the back of my mind. A few years later I acted; I got an artist grant here in the U.S. actually, which allowed some sort of space for maneuver. I knew it would be a long term project, that I would probably be working alone. So when I got the grant I packed all my equipment up and I returned there. Essentially years later after my initial visits. I met the [Elgounad] family [featured in House in the Fields], the mother, Tletmas, and the older sister, Fatima, on the second day in the village and they invited me in.
We got to know each other. I maybe took one or two photographs, I was there for a week or two and then I left. I didn’t film anything. I came back again and it started. As I got to know them more they invited me to stay with them. Very, very slowly I started filming. When I say slowly, it’s because I was living with them and getting to know other villagers, living as a guest. An outsider. When you’re a guest you have to slowly learn the rules of the house, you learn what is okay and not okay. You’re careful and respectful. And with that in mind, I was open to knowing more about the family and the village. Not immediately arriving to film them with a preconceived idea. It was more about the Amazigh community, how this village lived. How this family lived. And that’s what I did over the course of time, knowing always that this was for the long term. That if it takes 15 years it’ll take 15 years. I had no limit. I just knew that I wanted to learn more about this place, and that’s what I did.
AC: So you’re talking here about Khadija, this bold, brave, smart young woman. She dreams to be different — to be a lawyer, not to be married — and have this different life. Can you speak about what she’s up to today?
TH: She’s not a lawyer, and she’s not in school, and she’s going to get married next summer. I’ll be going to her wedding. That’s it. This is what I was saying about a collective sacrifice. Her love of school, the idea of this fleeting thing that might not continue past a certain age. Some people do go on to university, some do. I didn’t want to impose some sort of narrative, in a cinematic sense. She expressed a desire [to be a lawyer] and it was a profound one, and her joy at the idea of it. In the film there is no answer, there is just a recording of what I saw. It’s a passage of their lives, so when it cuts to black at the end, that’s it. What happens to them afterward is important to me, because I’m involved with them — with the whole family, with these girls, but there’s nothing more in terms of the spectator. Their lives continue beyond the film, they have children, they get married. But this one particular moment is a portrait of a specific period. Even for the girls to see the film, it’s just a window of a certain time, a certain place, their last year together.
AC: And it is a participatory portrait. When I read Khadija’s name in the credits for recording sound I thought that was so amazing! Could you talk about that?
TH: I think the thing is that when I arrived, I didn’t arrive with the idea of “tomorrow I’m filming.” I arrived, I put my bag of equipment in the corner, and slowly the equipment came out. The microphone, the camera, and because of that slow introduction there was an acceptance by the family. If I was a guest, the camera was also a guest. And the family became acquainted with it.
The girls and their brothers, but especially Khadija, were interested in what I was doing and how everything worked. I actually gave the microphone to Khadija with instructions. We would have conversations and I would ask questions—What do you like about your village? What do you not like? Can you show this through something that records sound? Can you tell me your story through the microphone?
Then I got organized and gave her a second mic, so she had the microphone with her over the years. Recording herself — some of the stuff was unusable because it was girls giggling, static — but she recorded nature, her friends. Who else could represent that other than somebody who comes from the place? And that became much clearer conceptually. She would bring back the discs and that was very enriching for me and for her, and for the film.
AC: Absolutely. When we spoke earlier, and I wrote it down because I loved that you said it, you said that “sound was a responsibility to her and she took it very seriously.”
TH: Yes she did take it very seriously. I think there’s something about children where they do take things seriously. Children understand that kind of responsibility if you ask them, “Could you please go and bring me an apple from the corner store?” they’ll take the trip, and some of them will take it very seriously. I think she understood in a very profound way, and both sisters did, what this was. I explained it to them, but over the months and years they learned this was a portrait of themselves, and they might as well be involved in it.
Then that took other forms as well, in terms of decisions specifically with them. There’s one sequence in which they were involved, which was the “dream” sequence. Which we reconstructed together. They were very excited about it. For a week! We had woken up one morning — I was sleeping in the same room as them — and Khadija tells Fatima, “I had a dream about you” etcetera, cetera. I thought what a pity I don’t have my camera handy, what an amazing dream and moment, and they got very excited about the idea of reconstructing it, Khadjia especially. And so I asked them, “okay you choose what your dream was like, where was it?” So they reconstructed it, and there was an ease to it, to the final sequence, because they’re also children, the idea of child’s play also comes into the construction itself.
Also, this relationship between me, the camera, and the people in front of its lens was very instructive for me as a filmmaker, to have this time allowed to observe how this very strange sort of symbiotic relationship occurs. How the presence of the camera affects the people who are being filmed. I think that when we had spoken before I had discussed this idea that there were certain moments or eruptions or performance, of what I would call “fiction.” It’s real, but also transcends the ‘real.’ And it doesn’t happen when there are actions like cooking or working the fields, because you have to do what you have to do, it’s more concrete. But there are certain moments where time loosens, and something opens up, and the people who are being filmed speak the reality of the present but they also perform in a certain way because there’s a camera there. And that happened a few times. And it also happened I think in a more collective way in the wedding sequence. That was the first time I was seen by the wider community of villagers (villages further afield congregate for collective rites). “Who is this person filming?” they must have asked themselves. It was a very strange sensation, because the ritual is a performance anyway. I could feel the dialogue between the other villagers in the larger community and the camera. I’m not even sure it was me or my presence alone. It was a small camera, and it became part of my body, or I became part of it, and so there was this sort of flow of bodies, and speech and song, and image-taking, it was very interesting. The camera became part of the ritual itself. I’m still trying to figure out what happened, how it happened, why it happened.
AC: Oh wow. I think part of the reason I feel I know you already is because you are so present throughout this film. I can feel all these things, the reactions of these people, feel the warmth between you and the sisters, and it translates on screen.
TH: I think that it depends always on friendships that start. Whether they’re close or not, whether they last a year or twenty, it’s really about that. Especially when in a film, in a documentary, and in a larger sense in cinema, it’s really about the pact that you have with another human being, and the responsibility as a filmmaker. I didn’t always film or record because there were certain moments when you don’t bring out the camera and I was always aware of this. So when you say that I’m present, that’s surprising to me, because obviously one can’t see oneself, but the camera is an extension of your own vision, as best you can do it. Sometimes you can’t look, and sometimes you can. I think one of the greatest pleasures is returning and people saying, “where have you been?” That’s the pact of friendship.
AC: How long were you there?
TH: I was there wow, on and off for six and a half years. I took a lot of photographs. It could have been longer, I could have gone on. As with any film you can just go on, but there’s a moment, obviously, where you stop.
AC: I’ve been fixated on this phrase I heard recently, someone referred to the films of John Marshall as a “cinema of patience.” Because he filmed one community over many, many years. I think your film is very much part of the canon of this “cinema of patience.”
TH: That’s such a beautiful phrase, because that’s exactly what it is. The other thing is that impatience also comes from wanting to impose either a certain narrative, or rushing toward some end, some answer somewhere. Even the idea of “I want to make a film” is a sort of imposition, it can make it a cinema of impatience. Whereas thinking let me record reality as it passes in flux, with people and their interior lives, a community, music, song, language, that takes time. And also things are hidden, right? So to glean the mysterious, the ineffable part of human beings, you have to be patient.
AC: Hidden, like some of these moments between the girls, singing pop songs, and teenage gossiping.
TH: What’s funny about the pop songs is that they’re also re-appropriated…they’re not pop songs. They’re songs that come, which I found out later, directly from the community. Some of them were famous Amazigh songs from the 60s and 70s. One song mentions a mini-skirt, it was a different time. But what they have done is they’ve made their own songs. So there’s a song about a mobile telephone, which I only discovered later in editing, listening to the sound, because actually, it was Khadija who recorded it with her friends. I then found out the meaning of that song, which is that boys and girls all have phones now and that’s how they communicate to meet. Romantic meetings are mediated through texting. So “turn off your mobile I’ll meet you in the fields, don’t tell anyone” becomes part of a song, that records a specific time in history (in this case the impact of phones on the community). Which is amazing! Song is an integral part of this community, it’s a chronicle of the times. In fact in the film there’s a man who sings, the griot, the bard. He’s the poet of this region who travels between villages and that’s how information is transmitted, through song and poetry.
AC: And Fatima had never seen her husband or never officially met him, but had they been in communication before in this way, by text?
TH: Well, I didn’t know. In this community, maybe they all see each other when they are children. They grow up together. The children, apart from being at school, are out at play in forests. In fact that’s where they learn most of the codes, the naming of things, with each other, not in school. So Fatima might have known him before, and at the time I was filming she was often disappearing to text on her phone. And I would ask, “what are you texting?” and I imagined, later, that in fact she might have been in touch with him.
Her anxiety about the wedding went on for a while. It’s not just that you just don’t know your groom, it’s that the wedding day, the wedding week, is such a massive ritual. It’s so intense, and it’s not just your village, but all the villages who come together. It’s very public and goes on for days. When I was filming I was aware of her terror. But because I was filming I couldn’t intervene, it was too late. The ritual had started. There was nothing, there was not even a moment, except for pressing her hand fleetingly, where I could intervene because it’s something that’s much larger than you. Even as an observer, one can feel that something has taken hold and it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Because again it’s the collective moment and much more, it’s bigger than the family, than even the village itself.
AC: For you, personally internalizing all of this, what was it like? You feel all this anxiety, and how do you navigate that? What was it like to live and work with these people?
TH: I think that I realized that time was very different there. Staying in these relatively high altitude mountains, your body is broken by the landscape. Especially as an outsider. I became super fit by the end of it all, not just because I was carrying a lot of equipment, it’s because the landscape takes over the body. And living with farmers means living a different temporality. You’re awake at dawn, you’re asleep at dusk. The land, the difficulty of working the land, has an effect after a while. It’s not the time of the city. It’s an elastic time, and that affected me in a physical way. It literally changed my body, and changed my own sense of time. Not just as a person but also as a filmmaker. I’m interested in, theoretically at least, the moving image and it’s privileged relationship with time. Because a film is not just time in terms of the chronological. It’s time in all its different depths, manifestations and rhythms. So this was interesting because it was also filming time that was particular to these people, to this place. Suddenly time was malleable and elastic, the environment and the landscape engulfs one, it takes over. I think they’re aware of it. As farmers, as people who live in high altitudes, there’s a sort of submission to the mountain, to the landscape. It’s the sky and the mountain and the stream that are omnipotent, and even in song, they are revered and elevated. There are songs to the mountain, there are songs to the river, there are songs to the sky. And you enter into that way of looking at the world. It’s special.
AC: Do you feel like you have that sense of time still? As you’re in New York today?
TH: No, it’s a memory now. After a while, you leave that and the intensity of it ebbs, and it becomes memory. So one has to go back, or go into different environments, in order to change one’s look on the world. There’s a lot of silence there. And an immersion and confrontation with a vast imposing landscape and nature that affects ways of being in the world.
AC: On that note, can you talk about the last scene of the film? Back to Khadija’s audio?
TH: So we come back to her having the microphone for a few years. I had asked her about her feelings a few times in conversation, “how do you feel about your sister getting married and leaving?” Because at the time that was the situation. That she would leave with her husband, leave the home. On the spot, in front of me, Khadija couldn’t verbalize it, she would say “I don’t know.” So I said to her, “if you had to say something to your sister what would you say? You have the microphone.” So she had weeks, months, years. And when I got the material back, not speaking the language well, I had to translate it with the help of a linguist. That’s when I found the audio of her speaking to her sister that I used in the last scene of the film. I remember that day, I was in the editing room, stunned. It was so mature, so poetic, and I think it was because she was alone. I don’t know where she recorded it, but she could speak truthfully, quietly, without the filmmaker’s presence, without her family, without anyone but herself. The other thing about collective communities and family, is that you’re never alone, except when you take walks in the fields. So I couldn’t have imagined finding this moment of truth from her. She gave an incredible gift with that, let’s call it a ‘monologue.’ It was a special gift, it’s the only way I can term it.
I think coming back to this idea of empowering people or having them participate in their own representation, participatory cinema if you will; obviously as a filmmaker you’re the shepherd of the film, but there’s a way to give people agency over their images, always with a sensitivity toward what is private, and taking a respectful stance in that regard. That sense of responsibility that you had asked about before, it was not just a responsibility to me as a filmmaker or a friend, but a responsibility to oneself and who you are, your family and community.
AC: And having an outsider there formalizes it.
TH: Yes, having the outsider there formalizes it. The scene with Fatima, when she talks about her marriage, her fears and her worries and her dreams. I think it’s one of two direct addresses to the camera. In my mind, that was always the confession. I always called it “the confession scene.” Her mother was outside, meaning she wasn’t with us, and in that moment there was a sort of formality to the set-up, and she really confessed, opened up. I thought, who can she talk to about her fears and worries? And it’s precisely to the stranger. I was the stranger, the outsider.
AC: Could you give an update on Fatima now, her family, her husband?
TH: Fatima’s husband is amazing, young, super organized. He’s been working since he was a teenager, and he’s saved money. He’s a laborer; it’s unbelievably hard work, difficult work. Now he’s opened a little shop with his brothers, and they’re building a house. Fatima has a daughter. Life goes on. Some of the concerns and worries are still there, but there will be many more chapters in her life. They’re like family to me. In the same way that I’m the outsider, I’m still a witness to their lives, even if the camera has stopped.
Alijah Case is a Boston-based writer working at the intersection of education, media, and the humanities. She owes her love of documentary film, and all the wondrous people and places it introduced her to, to the five years she spent working at DER.