More Than Hip-Hop, Father & Son in All I Wanna Do, The Film
Krip-Hop Nation (KHN): As a disabled activist/artist & founder of Krip-Hop Nation, I am totally interested in your 2011 documentary, All I Wanna Do, but first talk about your background as a film maker.
Michelle Medina: I got into documentary filmmaking at Smith College and went my junior year abroad to Morocco which is where I returned on a Fulbright Fellowship after graduation and started my first short documentaries about motherhood, women, Judaism, Morocco and Islam. Most of my friends and my daughter's father is a rapper so hip hop music and artists were all around me. I wanted to make a film about this scene but the artists had such large images to protect that I decided to wait on making any documentary. My daughter's father, told me that the man who worked on the street was a rapper and an interesting man. I went and spoke to him and he told me he wrote lyrics and rhythms and was inspired by the Beattles of Morocco called Nass El Ghiwane. I went to visit his father and met his son who was a big fan of one of Morocco's most famous rappers, Don Bigg. The family was kind and seemed to represent the majority of urban Casablanca and what more, they knew all the Moroccan hip hop artists. If I wanted to discover Moroccan hip hop, who better to tell me the story than their fans who were also amateur writers and artists themselves. So I began filming my first feature documentary, All I Wanna Do.
KHN: Do you think films can help change public view about certain people, communities & help to create change? If so how has your film change society in Casablanca especially the music industry?
Michelle Medina: I think film and images can most certainly change people's minds. I am a fan of documentary because I never forget the people I meet in a film that is based on a moment with real people. I have changed radically my own world view because of places I have been, people I have filmed, and films and documentaries that I have seen. That is partly why I do it. To reflect life and change our reality for the better which for me is a more peaceful and creative world.
My film was made for a Moroccan audience here. It was not meant to go around the world as it has but of all the prizes it has one the two from Morocco mean the most because they were given with lots of affection and pride.
KHN: Tell me how did this story of a father and his disabled son becoming a Hip-Hop group?
Michelle Medina: They were budding rap artists and very shy about it but talking about how much they wanted to make an album. I asked if they would let us film them as they made an album with our help and backing because we also wanted to see how an artist in Morocco even managed to get to the radio and was it possible to live off of that. So they agreed and formed a band named "Jumerah" which means burning coals. They started the process of recording an album and learned how even if they had never been to a studio before. It was very amazing to see the transformation they went through on this expedition.
KHN: As Founder of Krip-Hop Nation, I’m very interested on how Hip-Hop artists with disability are treated all over the world. If you know can you give us some insight about disability & Hip-Hop in Casablanca, Morocco?
Michelle Medina: In Morocco, disability is seen as a hardship because it is very hard especially if you are coming from a poorer family. On a governmental level more should and must be done. People with disabilities here don't get the same advantages as elsewhere. A lot of people with disabilities can be found begging in the street here especially near where I live in Casablanca. For the lucky ones from families that can afford the care it's better but not by much. That is not to say that there is hate towards the disabled. There is a lot of concern and love. When Ayoub is seen on screen and met in life people adore him and treat him with such dignity. It put me to shame that in America that kind of human interaction would probably not happen at all. What I find shocking more than poverty and lack of resources in Morocco, is the hate in the States that exists for no valid reason just seemly here for free.
What I discovered in the distribution of my film was that disabled folks are treated not very kindly or with much respect in the States. When I submitted my film I once got an earful from a program director from a major and well respected festival in Brooklyn that posted on Facebook that:
"Just because someone is missing a limb or a tongue or an eye or an ear or is somehow handicapped or sort of elderly, that doesn't mean that you should make a documentary about how they still like to do normal stuff like dance or fuck or tag or play bocce..."Yeah, put that shit in you "What Not to Doc".
His friend followed up with: "Little people and speech impediments excluded."
The program director answered: "I am confused. You want to watch a short film about a man who has a lisp who plays bocce? That doesn't sound that awesome to me."
The thread followed with demeaning remarks for those with handicaps as if they were a joke. That of course was the year I submitted my film "All I Wanna Do" and there weren't many with handicapped issues that year, as every year there isn't that many. It struck me as hateful and angry but about what? I never got that sort of angry reception from Moroccan audiences before or since.
KHN: The music industry especially Hip-Hop is not to friendly toward musicians/Hip-Hop artists with disabilities.. In the film do we see how the music industry in Morocco react toward the son & father?
Michelle Medina: Well, the only people that set limits on Ayoub for his disability was one radio jockey. He unloaded all his baggage on him On air. The radio jockey said all sorts of inappropriate things we didn't even add to the documentary because it was so abusive but the little we did include was how he asked Ayoub if he feels different because of his disability. Ayoubs father interjected to say, "Ayoub can jump higher and Ayoub can rap louder and Ayoub is complete." It was a strong moment as was the time when the disk jockey said that I shouldn't be making the film because it was going to give them hope to dream in a country without possibility. I was once told the same that I shouldn't reach or dream because I wasn't worth it but I did. This might not be their career but if it makes them feel valuable then that's all we could have hoped for but to say you can't is demeaning.
KHN: I love that is a father & son movie because here in the US you barely see a disabled son &father movie especially people of color. Tell us why you chose these two main characters?
Michelle Medina: I guess you are right, I didn't think about that from an American perspective. They are unusual even for Moroccan standards primarily because the father supports his son's dreams and they are truly friends. Mohamed's love for his son led him to join in on his son's passion for music and this is where they found a way to express their opinions and struggles and to bond. The main reason I chose these two individuals was because their social situation and their sentiments on life seemed to tell the story of many people in Morocco and yet they as people are really so truly unique. Mohamed forged a connection with his son built on mutual respect and sharing. He is a remarkable father and they are exceptional by all standards. Many men in the filming commented on the relationship with envy and admiration saying they wish they had the same with their fathers who most likely said to them that music was a waste of time.
The songs they wrote were interesting beyond just their aesthetics. One was a song about alcoholism and family violence and was insightful. They didn't hide anything. Another song was about his love for his country and another about respect for all the work of their mothers and the women that make up their lives. They were very profound and simple.
If I had once thought about making a documentary about rap and interviewing rap groups, after meeting Mohamed and Ayoub it was clear I was going to be filming almost exclusively just them. In them I could learn about other Moroccan rappers and also discover Morocco through their vision of life.
KHN: What is the political realities in North Africa & has those realities made it into the film?
Michelle Medina: The political realities for a citizen of the MENA region is difficult and Morocco is considered one of the best in regards to human rights and development. However for a regular joe that doesn't have connections, doesn't know someone in power or enough people at companies, there is no chance that you can hope to get a job that pays enough to be considered middle class. So one is usually going to continue in their fathers footsteps and stay at that level and many cases worse. That can discouraging and also painful because when you can't eat well or take care of yourself that is harsh. Public education is lacking, religion is enforced by the state, things that you might take for granted in the USA like ambulance services or a 911 emergency line is just a dream here. If you have an accident and it's critical, prayer is about all you have got and we joke here that we must have a higher power always hanging over Morocco because we are by and large still here. So for an average Moroccan they can't leave easily, they can't get an education or a job easily, they can't do a list of things by religion and society, well that has a discouraging effect on people and it kills your hopes and dreams. People at an early age are expected to be "realistic" which is a word I hate because it often is meant to mean "think less do less" because not only will nothing come from hope but you aren't worthy of it. These feelings are for me the root of the Arab Spring and those realities were expressed in this film right before the MENA region blew up.
KHN: What was your research that you did for this film & do you like Hip-Hop?
Michelle Medina: I love hip hop I have been a fan since I moved to America at the time when Tupac was at the top of the rap charts. When I came to Morocco, I found myself intrigued that although hip hop is such an urban American musical form it seemed to connect to Moroccan teenage boys in the city and in some spaces to women and to people in the countryside. It was something people loved or hated and it seemed to connect to certain individuals that I found to be on the margins of society or felt like they identified with the margins and needed a space to voice rage or despair or ask questions. I immersed myself into the hip hop music scene in Casablanca and interviewed and spoke with as many musicians, fans, DJs and concert organizers as possible to learn what their challenges were and the culture. There are few outlets to perform let a lone earn a living from it.
KHN: Tell us about the son character’s real life.
Michelle Medina: Ayoub was born without a part of his leg. In the context of Morocco, there are many families that feel the need to give up their children to the street in hopes that someone with an organization might adopt them. Ayoubs parents are of very modest means and they embraced him and encouraged him and took such delight in celebrating their boy. They were a couple that married for love and it shows. Many do marry for love, I don't want to make it sound like that never happens but for many many people, love is a luxury. There are many decisions to be made and discussions to be had by the very wealthy and the modest before a marriage takes place and a proposal gets filtered through many different priorities that are dependent on your education, family upbringing, exposure to the world and on how one is perceived in the larger societal network. It is a great luxury to make that major life decision with the least amount of interference. But it's not that easy or simple in most places in the world but thankfully Mohamed and his wife were lucky enough to fall in love and get married and remain a loving supportive couple with their three children.
In Morocco there is also still no publicly funded governmental agency to house and educate orphans. If Ayoub had be born to another family there is a great possibility that he could have been left on the street like countless other orphans. When I interviewed people that run private orphanages they told me that most children that come to them have special needs of some sort. Ayoub's parents registered him in every possible government program available to educate and help their son. Ayoub became quite the star of PR campaigns and was discovered and recruited to act in many Hollywood films that were set in Afghanistan or Iraq but filmed in Morocco. In so many ways, Ayoub thrived and his work as an actor made him feel worthy and meaningful. In the film we talk about a moment in his film work where he thought he might have the chance to go and film a scene in LA and when that didn't work out he went through a difficult time and felt lost. However despite this he has no shame in himself thanks to his wonderful parents. He plays soccer, he bikes, he is athletic and gets into trouble like a lot of teenagers his age but the feeling I got from his father and family was that what made him special was that he didn't let others' beliefs stop him from living fully. His parents admired him, looked up to him really. He is everything you hope for in a son.
KHN: Being a woman filmmaker doing a film about Hip-Hop what kind of reactions you get in Morocco compare to the US?
Michelle Medina: Such a good question! The politics of space. I am a woman and although I am on the starving artist end in America, I am a privileged woman to many eyes here in Morocco. Also hip hop is such a 'masculine' space in its sometimes performative tropes of masculinity. Despite all of that I did manage to educate myself on the Moroccan scene and I can't remember a single time me being a woman was a problem in how anyone treated me as a person. I was more respected by Moroccans in general as a filmmaker then I ever have been while working with Western men where I found a lot of sabotage and out right disrespect. In the filming process, there were moments when I knew I would have to back off and let my male assistant come in to ask some of the harder more personal questions to the men, some of whom were older. Without explaining or defending that, I do have to say I understand that there will be moments when we need to talk amongst ourselves, whatever that may be to express things in a safe space. I felt no hesitation to get out of the way if it meant a better more honest climate.
KHN: Has the disabled community/organizations in Morocco embrace this film & how did you reach out to this community?
Michelle Medina: Actually the disabled community is more like a government run building and this wasn't something they were very interested in. However the documentary was featured on national government run TV in Morocco so it undoubtedly was seen by the maximum available population. The viewers sent in really positive social media feedback.
KHN: I do workshops about music & disability. How would you like educators & culture workers use this film in their classrooms, in the community & at home and what are the main messages you want viewers to leave with?
Michelle Medina: It's not until half way that you can see in full view that Ayoub has crutches. This was not done on purpose but worked out well because the audience has come to see Ayoub already in a different way by the time they see the first scene with this crutches. It's then it is immediately discussed by all the members of his family and himself. I think one lives with people in documentaries and if I could give my version and vision of things and it helps open up the discussion I would be very happy for that. I don't know enough to guide educators like yourself about how to use the film within the disabled community, but I would be so happy to know of the feedback from its use. The main message of the film for viewers is the same for every film. I want people to find themselves in these stories and to connect to people in far away places that we aren't supposed to know or care about. A lot of what we see in the media are quick little stereotypes of what we already know. Just looking at the news these days the summary is people in the MENA region are savages, both the Jews/Israelis and Arabs/Muslims. It's depressing as I have been to all of these places and have friends in every part of the conflict and region and I see one thing on TV and another in reality. No one is a savage and if we buy into any narrative that attests to that no matter if its right or left, it goes against reality and humanity. It's easy to be extreme it's difficult to be balanced and in my documentaries I expose myself and offer up an vision of a life in the hopes to communicate and convey all the beauty I see in so many places and people.
KHN: What are the father & son doing these days since the movie has been out there?
Michelle Medina: The father refused to work anywhere else other then where he is now with the people of the community and Ayoub is still writing music and started working.
KHN: Do you think Hip-Hop & Hip-Hop culture in Morocco & word-wide has embrace people with disabilities?
Michelle Medina: I hope so. I know they embraced Ayoub easily. I don't know about the Western world, I think that will be a more harder challenge because disabilities are looked down upon and masculinity is still so narrowly defined in the West.
KHN: Will you continue to make films with a disabled character?
Michelle Medina: Yes. I haven't any plans to do a film about it at the moment but my next film has a character that does have a disability.
KHN: Thank you so much! How can people stay in contact with you?
Michelle Medina: www.michellemedinafilm.com
KHN: Any last words?
Michelle Medina: I think I spoke already so much, but thank you for being patient with me.