February 24, 2024

Asmae El Moudir grew up in a household where photos weren’t allowed. Her grandmother Zahra, an old crone of a woman who cruelly spits out words to demean her daughter and granddaughter with little regard for their feelings, had always forbid them. No wonder she’s less than thrilled about Asmae’s decision to begin chronicling her own family history for what becomes “The Mother of All Lies,” an evocative and heartrending documentary that will force them all to reckon with that one fateful evening in 1981 when riots and mass graves in Casablanca rocked family and country alike into a forgetful haze that was as urgent then as it is painful now.

To accomplish this, El Moudir has recruited her father to help her construct a replica of the neighborhood she grew up in. This handcrafted vision of their shared past, replete with handmade doll-like figurines of family members and neighbors, becomes a place where family secrets and memories — not to mention long-simmering resentments — come to a head.

At first, the question of why El Moudir only has one photo from her childhood (a picture she now worries isn’t even of herself at all) is what drives her into this intimate if makeshift home movie, where dolls and cardboard-made spaces are called to stand in for moments and memories that have been kept locked away for years. But soon her artistic impulse to nurture catharsis through make-believe keeps running up against not just her prickly grandmother’s disavowal of such concerns but also the more long-lasting trauma this hand-painted Casablanca backdrop cannot help but call up.

With those cardboard replicas El Moudir pushes her grandmother to look back at a time and a place she has calcified herself against. Her casual cruelty is driven by a need to have isolated her family from dangers from outside. She’s constantly shown to care little for what El Moudir is doing even as camera and filmmaker alike show her an empathy that feels unearned. It’s hard not to see in the generational differences — between El Moudir’s grandma and her own mother, whose shouting matches the director captures with unguarded tenderness — differing ways of having coped with trauma. Here is a vision of a country still trying to heal.

Emerging as a shared art therapy experiment and a poetic exercise in storytelling, “The Mother of All Lies” is a bruising piece of work. Not just because of the emotional excavation El Moudir pushes her family toward, using props and figures and prompts to bring up a violent history many would soon rather forget, but because it stresses, in its quasi-animated spectacle, a shared artistic vision of how memory operates. As we’re told late in the film, “We don’t measure how much silence hurts until the day we speak” — the kind of poetic statement that characterizes the doc.

Playing both filmmaker and ringmaster, recreating scenes with figurines and allowing her family to let themselves open up on camera, El Moudir succeeds in making a very personal document into an enthralling piece of work. One that is inventive as it recognizes that the way to move forward requires a steely vision of the past—even if such reminiscences are sometimes better filtered through dolls and replicas (since photos and videos, in their fidelity to truth, have rightly been banished from this cultural imaginary).

“The Mother of All Lies” is an astonishing work whose maturity comes from El Moudir’s wide-eyed approach to her family history, where memory and history are quite literally reduced to playthings in order to process the unspeakable events they conjure up.

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