Interview: Randa Maroufi, director of Bab Sebta

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GSFF speaks to director Randa Maroufi about her powerful new film Bab Sebta, crossing both physical and artists borders with its topical subject matter and distinctive form. Blurring the lines between documentary and performance, Maroufi has crafted a vivid insight into the lives of workers at the border of Europe and Africa, using a mixture of actors and real people. Her experimental focus on Bab Sebta provokes a hypnotic audience experience, where movement and aesthetics are combined in creating a uniquely profound theatrical liberty. 

Bab Sebta evokes a universal and visually impressive exploration of border control. What made you want to tell this story? 

It’s important to me to talk about the anecdotal part of this project because it fuelled my desire to want to work on this subject. Ceuta is a territory that I have visited frequently since my young age, because my father was a customs inspector. Many people in my family work in this field, as well as in transit, import and export, and so on. Customs slang often recurred in our family meetings. I remember that we even used goods from customs seizures. I lived for several years in the region of Tangier and studied 4 years at the National Institute of Fine Arts of Tetouan. I have always been marked by the Spanish influence in this region, almost omnipresent, strongly found in the regional dialect, the way of living, and especially in the culture of consumption. In 2015, I had the opportunity to stay at the Trankat Art Residency. I spent three weeks there, returning on foot and by car to watch this ‘ballet’ of individuals around the border of Bab Sebta. The dynamics of movement, the plastic and visual appearance of the passage, the characteristic situations of waiting and the gestures immediately interested me. This remote observation experiment inaugurated the project.

What did you intend to communicate with your audience about the themes explored in the film? 

In this film, my will is to transcribe this particular tension felt on the small territory separating Africa from Europe, but also a more general state of the world. I wanted to raise the question of the passage between continents from the perspective of everyday life. 

In continuation of this communication, how did you use creative form to express your ideas? 

Because it is strictly forbidden to take pictures at the border, I chose to build this project in a more conceptual way. Bab Sebta can be considered as an artistic experimentation that questions the limit of representation. Proceeding from the same economics as Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) which reduces and eliminates all elements of the scenery, there is no image of the city of Ceuta, so that all attention is paid to the gestures. The protagonists were people who actually worked at the border of Ceuta and whom I asked to replay their own role. They were equipped with their bags and working clothes.

The film is shot as a mixture of aerial views and long, continuous shots. What did you hope to convey through this decision and how did you go about it achieving it?

The film was shot with two different points of view, a zenith and a frontal one. The choice of the zenith point of view seemed important; adequate and fairer to analyse a subject related to the separation of two territories, it allowed me to capture the cartographic dimension of the project. It can recall the architecture, the topography and also monitoring. The frontal travelling allowed me to obtain the delicacy of the details and the situations, but also leave space for the human figure and faces.

There was a lot of post-production work since the film is composed only of still shots. All of the camera movements are virtual – the floor drawings and signage have been added by a graphic designer.

There is a certain choreography to the movement of your characters that finds elegance in the film’s chaotic themes. Do you think this creative perspective is important when exploring complex subjects?

I didn’t want to approach the film head-on or fall into pathos. I am neither a journalist nor a reporter. The formal and theatrical dimension of the film is a guarantee of freedom in relation to the subject. I wanted to get as far away from the usual media image that covers this subject, to give the people filmed the opportunity to express themselves in a space and time other than that of the border. Far from the real places, I wanted to give workers an importance and freedom they lack in the real landscape.

Interview by Heather Bradshaw. Bab Sebta screens in Bill Douglas Award 4: Power Up.