Interview with Mohamed El Khatib, author-director

August 31, 2016 | By French Culture Arts

French/Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib presented Finir en beauté, a solo lecture presentation on loss and remembrance, drawing from documents from his family’s past at Time Based Art Festival, Portland Institute of the Arts (September 16-18) and at Princeton Festival of Princeton University Seuls en scène (September 28-29).

Before his departure for the U.S., Mohamed spoke with Nicole Birmann Bloom, Program Officer, Performing Arts.


Bonjour Mohamed,

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): Author, director, actor, and filmmaker, you started the Zirlib Collective with several colleagues five years ago. What attracted you to theater and how did you become an author, and then the creator of your own productions? Could you describe your approach?

Mohamed El Khatib (M.E.K.):  It was by accident that I got involved with theater. The productions of the Zirlib Collective are based upon the people I’ve met by accident.  Our theatrical approach is similar to a ready made; it consists of bringing people together who would or could not have had the opportunity to meet, people of different backgrounds (social, professional, or cultural) who at first seem to have nothing in common. From these frictions, a series of true-life stories emerge. Their forms depend on the different energies and personalities confronting each other.

For me, to write for the theater, the cinema or for a visual artwork, is only the result of a succession of Copy and Pastes, of a collection of samples from the “real world” that I organize to get closer to an elusive truth.

N.B.B.: “Finir en beauté” pays homage to your mother, who passed away due to cancer. Could you tell us about this specific performance - a personal story - where you stand alone onstage? What difficulties or unexpected events did you face? What were the reactions of the audience that surprised you the most?

M.E.K.: I don’t have the impression that I’m constructing my performances .

I grab all the material without differentiating in the present moment, whatever their nature (bureaucratic issues, personal feelings…); then I assemble the different components to reveal other meanings in a configuration that I try to keep as close as possible to real life.

In this passage from reality to poetry – to say it concisely – the structure is more or less chronological; however, I pay attention to deconstructing frames I imposed on my work. Therefore only a few vague references to traditional theater remain. There is a beginning, and at the end the mother dies, in fact quite fast in the play. The rest of the time is more a conversation with the audience.

I have performed this play in 15 countries and the reactions have been extremely warm whether it was in Latin America, in Asia or in Africa. The main reason is the universality of the subject: everyone has a mother, and we could say that the audience is divided into two categories, those who have lost their mother, and those who will lose her.

N.B.B.: Did you present « Finir en beauté » in Morocco, your family’s country of origin? And if yes, how was it perceived? 

M.E.K.: Yes, and in Morocco, the reception by the audience was noteworthy for two reasons: They focused on the text and on the approach of sharing the grief. For the Moroccans, there was no form of exoticism in the production since they are already exposed to the rituals I evoke in the performance. Thus it was indeed a theater piece for them.

N.B.B.: And soccer: Tell us about your love for soccer, which has been part of your life for many years?

(***) For information, Mohamed is in residence at Faculté des sports et de l'Education physique de Lievin,  Université d'Artois des Hauts de France.

M.E.K.: First I played soccer for a long time. I started when I was six years old and it is a passion: I am a devotee practicing at a high level. It used to be a source of shame because, until recently, intellectual circles had a condescending attitude toward soccer: at its best, soccer was part of a folklore, or at its worst, it represented nationalisms full of xenophobia. For me, instead, soccer was a kind of education, I felt closer to the people and it was an experience full of unexpected encounters.

By the way, next year, my involvement in soccer will lead to a performance in France and in Birmingham, England. 53 soccer fans who are also skilled non-professional players will participate in it.  The performance will highlight the energy, the commitment, and the beauty that can originate from this popular sport.

N.B.B.: Recently you developed two films: Corps de ballet and, soon, Renault 12.  What does filming bring to you that the stage cannot offer? And how does one feed the other?

M.E.K.: Whether I am creating a play, an installation, or a succession of images, it is the documentary style that interests me and how my work can have some impact on reality; I am not looking for effects that look like reality, but for achieving actions that transform the lives of the participants in our projects.  

In the filmmaking process, one says “this is the good one and there can be no other.” Theater operates from the saying “each time, we hope it’s good.” In fact, no matter the medium, the form doesn’t interest me for what it is. When I start a project,I don’t know if we are going to do a film or a play: the essential for me is the meaning. What do we want to say? And to whom?

N.B.B.: Could you tell us more about your next projects?

M.E.K: My next project called STADIUM is about soccer; it will be an examination of the working class that fills up a stadium. In each country where we are working, the idea is to recreate this giant documentary-performance with 53 local fans.

Another project is dear to my heart; it is called C’EST LA VIE (That’s Life). It happens that I work with two actors, each of whom lost a child. After Finir en beauté and my mother’s death, we will ponder together this ultimate tragedy, the loss of a child. 

N.B.B.: You will be in the United States soon. How does this country and American artists inspire you? 

M.E.K.: The worst of the United States is the socio-economic inequalities. You are black and you can be the victim of a fatal police mistake. It also means that everything is possible when you have money. 

At the artistic level, I’m interested in the American avant-garde, which is active in visual and performance art and has worked and still works as an alarm bell for the world. I have a lot of admiration for the unlimited and relentless dynamism of the American artists; I am also taken aback by the economic environment and conditions for artists, mainly because of the commercial privatization of American art.

N.B.B.: Your roots are in Morocco, and your family is Muslim. Do you have a message in relation to recent acts of violence by Islamic extremist groups? (or do you have something to say)

M.E.K.: A message to the world, absolutely not.  I only believe in intelligence.

I try to remain aware so that a type of essentialism towards Muslims can end. Besides, “the muslims" don't exist. On what basis do people confuse a Wahhabi from Ryad with a secular Muslim from Lebanon, an opportunistic European Jihadist with one Muslim who lives peacefully and religiously within their culture? Yet people keep focusing on one religion and discriminating  - in unbearable ways - against a large part of the Middle-Eastern population. 

Furthermore, as a feminist, I am the first to denounce retrograde customs maintained by archaic Islamic traditions, but one needs to pay attention not to be outraged in a selective way. We were moved how women in Germany were mistreated by young foreigners on St. Sylvester Day, but we ignore the fact that 40 percent of women working in Silicon Valley are victims of sexual harassment by what seem to be good Americans.

Thank you, Mohamed.

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