(Sophie Penson, Said Hamich 2018; Dir: Randa Maroufi)

Bab Sebta

Nothing to declare

review by Bo Alfaro Decreton

Bab Sebta

length: 20

year of production: 2018

country of production: Sophie Penson, Said Hamich

director: Randa Maroufi

director of photography: Luca Coassin

editing: Ismael Joffroy Chandoutis, Randa Maroufi

sound: Mohamed Bounouar, Léonore Mercier

festivals: Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg 2020, Glasgow Short Film Festival 2020, Filmfest Dresden 2020, Tampere Film Festival 2020, IFFR 2020, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2020, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur 2019, DOK Leipzig 2019,

© images: Bab Sebta (Randa Maroufi)

In her fourth short film, Randa Maroufi creates a re-enactment of the border control in Ceuta, an enclave in between Morocco and Spain. Since only few job opportunities are available in the region and informal trade is being tolerated, numerous (mostly female) smugglers are forced into daily Sisyphean labour, earning some money if they’re lucky, yet never enough to free themselves from the ongoing severe living conditions.

Maroufi stages this theatrical replica in one gigantic warehouse and cleverly captures the daily life of said border life. We find ourselves — camera and thus spectator — literally hanging over the top of the heads of those waiting at the border: many of whom are killing time by working out, fixing their car, playing board games or taking a nap. Some of the actors are smugglers in real life too; their lives are on pause for control in more than just one sense. This almost frozen time is echoed in Luca Coassin's cinematography: though the camera is constantly travelling at a patient pace, changing perspectives occasionally, it generates a hushed impression that skilfully embodies the slow rhythm of those on screen. Maroufi and Coassin have found harmony in the represented perspectives, offering the well balanced experimental film and performance an air of elegance and grace.

The minimalism of content and structure is evenly evident in the set design, though here Maroufi subtly opts for the absurd, fooling around with the model’s scale. A checkpoint, for instance, is presented much more compact compared to the number of people anticipating a check-through, highlighting the ridiculousness of this strategic setting. In contrast, authentic and raw sound material is used to disrupt the undeniable beauty of the images. Over the course of this one-off walkabout, a customs officer’s testimony can be heard, providing an insight into the overall structure of the area. This predominantly cold testament does not equate a sterile look at the facts by Maroufi, who puts her utter trust in the hands of the people she’s observing and portraying.

The neatness, taut lines and silence accentuate the ostensible theatricality of the enactment, evoking Lars Von Trier's 'Dogville' in which the human condition is similarly examined more closely by means of an enlarged and staged metaphor. Maroufi's artificial mise-en-scene, however, also stresses the artificiality of the borders themselves, and thus the twisted power struggle they inherently contain. As the "gateway to Europe", Ceuta is a place where a harsh battle for survival reigns, as the income of many families depend on whether or not they can successfully transfer their merchandise across the border.

‘Bab Sebta’ also shines a light on the perspective of these smugglers, neatly welding fiction with reality. By highlighting both sides of the story, the Moroccan director creates a socio-political layering similar to Lola Arias' 'Teatro de Guerra' (2018), where soldiers from both sides of the Falklands War meet in an attempt to mutually expose and understand each other's suffering. Maroufi’s radical formalistic choices might simplify the problem for the greater good, yet never lose sight of individual tragedies. This is where the uniqueness of 'Bab Sebta' lies: offering a look through the cracks of a social issue that usually remains underexposed, without actually going on-site. As a spectator, you always oscillate somewhere in between, though it’s hard to imagine ever being closer to this complex area than via Maroufi’s offered bird’s eye view.

This review was previously published in Dutch on Kortfilm.be.