I’ve recently set up a film club in Fes. The idea is to get people together to watch films, discuss films, and practice their English skills. The project is part of my work with the American Language Center.
The first film we watched was ‘Casablanca’ the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. My initial programming was to use films that would spark ideas about American culture and since we are in Morocco and Casablanca is set in Morocco, this seemed like a logical first choice.
I’d only seen the movie once before and it was well before I lived in Morocco. I didn’t remember all the details but one thing I knew is that for most Americans, when they think of Morocco, the most powerful association is with the film Casablanca. So, I titled the first viewing/discussion – The American View of Morocco.
I introduced the film by giving some background, the year it was made, the fact that it wasn’t made in Morocco but in Flagstaff, Arizona and that none of the cast had actually been to Morocco with the exception of one man who played a bit part of a waiter. I suggested that we watch for examples of Moroccan culture, stereotypes of Moroccans, and also that we pay attention to how the main characters were portrayed.
As to Morocco, you could just as easily have changed the name to Juneau, Shanghai, or Kabul. There is barely anything of Morocco in this film. Morocco is an Islamic country filled with mosques, in the 30’s and 40’s it was occupied by France but much more conservative than it is today in many regards, and (just in case anyone has forgotten) even then, the vast majority of the population was Moroccan.
In Casablanca the story begins by showing a map with Casablanca incorrectly placed on it, much closer to Tangier than to Casa. Later Captain Renault asks Rick why he lives in the desert when he loves the sea (in fact Casablanca is an Atlantic Port), there is not a single word of Arabic spoken (not even Salaam a leykum or inshallah) and we see a cutout of a mosque for about 3 seconds in the beginning, only one man in a jallaba, and a woman in a 1001 nights type of veil is the only covered woman we see. The actors don’t speak with anything remotely close to Moroccan accents, are not Arabs or Berbers, and the one portrayal of a Moroccan that gets any attention is a clown who is trying to sell a carpet and with no urging from the client continually lowers his price. In short, what do we see of Morocco in Casablanca? Nothing. Walu. Zilch.
Instead we see dancing, drinking, gambling, and lots and lots of white people pretending to be apish Moroccans wearing fezzes of a style seen in Turkey and Egypt but never in Morocco. So much for the American view of Morocco.
Instead, this is a film about how America sees itself. Rick is a hustler, a selfish man who uses and casts the ladies aside, he has no friends, no loyalties, and he ‘sticks his neck out for no one’. Of course, since he is really the representative of American self image, deep down he has a heart of gold, and surprise surprise, he is really the most important man in the world because he ends up saving the most important underground resisitance leader (and by proxy thus saving the world from the Nazis and thus he is the most important person in the world) and on top of that, not only does he get the girl who jilted him in Paris when she found that her husband wasn’t dead, but he also gets to jilt her by sending her off with the husband when she chooses to stay with him. Sweet revenge.
As to the girl, she betrayed her husband with Rick, betrayed Rick with her husband, and then was ready to betray her husband with Rick again, except Rick saved their marriage instead.
The Frenchman…well he is a dog who blows whichever way the wind blows whether it is with the Nazis or the Allies. He uses his position to solicit sex from young married refugees, takes bribes, and in the end though, decides it is better to side with Rick than the Reich (after all, Rick is the most important person in the world and just saved the world single-handedly)
Then there is Sam. Sam seems to be the best friend Rick has and looks out for him but Rick treats him with a coolness and disdain that is reminiscent of the master and slave relationship…Rick even offers Sam his freedom but Sam turns it down “No Massa, I already can’t spend all the money I make with you.” And of course Rick overtly denies that he buys and sells human beings, Sam is his slave by choice.
The Nazis, well they are Nazis. And the freedom fighter, he brings the most inspiring moment to the film when he demands that the French Anthem be played over the top of the German one.
In summary, I don’t hate the film. It’s a good film. It’s fun to watch, it feels good, but really…Casablanca in the desert?