"Give voice to the voiceless": Mohamed El Aboudi talks doc 'School of Hope'

What began as a documentary about education among a nomadic tribe in Morocco ended up as a poetic ode to resilience, a haunting film that shows us the impact of global warming on those least responsible for it.
"Give voice to the voiceless": Mohamed El Aboudi talks doc 'School of Hope'

School of Hope is a must-watch film which has its international premiere in Hot Docs’ International Spectrum competition. The Toronto based documentary festival Hot Docs screens online this year and the titles in its extensive line up are available from the 29th of April to the 9th of May.

The documentary School of Hope focuses on the Oulad Boukais tribe in the Western Sahara, who have lost their livestock and nomadic way of living due to climate change. Unable to get government support for even water or electricity, they invest in education by building a hut for a young teacher. Finland-based, Australian-educated Moroccan-born filmmaker Mohamed El Aboudi followed the tribe for three years and found within their resilience a much needed story of hope which focuses on three extraordinary children -- Mohamed, Miloud, and Fatima -- as well as their courageous teacher Mohamed.

The result is a love song to humanity at its best because School of Hope truly embodies the spirit of the old saying "it takes a village."

MIME caught up with the filmmaker for an in-depth interview, where he talked about his initial discovery of the tribe featured in the film, as well as how he managed to film them with such intimacy and care.

Filmmaker Mohamed El Aboudi

What attracted you to this story in particular? What was the moment when you knew it was the story you needed to tell?

During the shooting of my film Dance of Outlaws (2012), I was shocked to realize that the main character didn’t know that she should have an ID card until her daughter became 6 years old and she needed to enroll her to school –- in fact, she couldn’t even pronounce the Arabic word for ID card. She told me she had never needed it, and didn’t understand why she should have one. She didn’t know her rights and responsibilities as a Moroccan citizen. That’s when I decided that I should make a film about education in Morocco.

The Oulad Boukais Tribe are nomads, but have started to settle down because of a decade-long draught. When I first saw the School of Hope, I thought it was just a shed for animals. I asked my guide if that is really a school, and he opened the door and showed me the tables and the blackboard. A couple of tables and a window were broken, and there was neither water nor electricity. A man from the tribe told me that they had built the school themselves, and an NGO organized a teacher and paid him a very small salary. One teacher had just left because of the poor conditions, and they were waiting for a new one. I saw that there were good ingredients for an interesting film; nomads, harsh environment, education, and climate change.

What is your personal connection with the Oulad Boukais Tribe? How did you become involved with the people?

During my research a friend of mine suggested that I should visit the Oulad Boukais Tribe. I had never been to the area before, but the people were very warm and welcoming, and I felt an immediate connection to them because of my past. I spent my early childhood in a small village in the mountains of North Morocco, and like the nomad children, I had to walk ten kilometers with bad shoes to get to the school. I knew what it feels like to have no running water, no electricity, no hospital, or proper roads. When the nomads saw that I understood their feelings and cared about their situation, they became very helpful and happy to cooperate. They are used to being ignored by the authorities and politicians, and they were positively surprised that someone was giving them importance and wanted to help make their problems heard. They were only worried if I would be able to stand the harsh life during the long shoot.

Your film offers a view into climate change, without preaching to its audience. Did you always know this was a film about global warming and the consequences on those who are most vulnerable to it?

In the beginning, I was planning to make a film about education, but when I came to know the nomads, I saw how climate change is slowly making their traditional lifestyle impossible. Actually, the School of Hope might not have existed, without global warming. Before the long draught, the nomads were moving around with their herds and felt no need for a school. Climate change has forced them to settle down and they have realized their children won’t have a future without education. It wasn’t possible to make a film about the nomads without climate change being a big part of it, because it is the core of their problems and affects their daily lives in so many ways. Whenever two nomads meet, they talk about the draught, lack of water and whether their children will have a future as nomads.

How did you manage to film such intimacy with the women and young girls in the film? As a male director it’s not easily achieved, I imagine….

My method of working is to gain the trust of all my characters before the shooting starts. In this case it was difficult, the nomads live in small, isolated groups, and the children are not used to strangers visiting them. But in the end, they did accept me, and even considered me part of the tribe.

I visited the tribe several times and gained their trust, but when I brought the crew with me, I still had to get the children used to them. First, I introduced the crew to the nomads without shooting, but there was an unexpected problem with the sound man. He had long hair, and one small girl started to scream and refused to get into the school. She couldn’t understand if he was male or female, and found him scary. I gave the sound man a hat to hide his hair and started to play with the girl and the sound man, tossing a football, and slowly she came to accept his presence.

I didn’t film with the women during the first shooting trip. I felt that the time was not right yet, but when I returned and the women saw that I really cared about their children, they started to open up. That was a crucial moment in making the film; especially Khadija, the mother of Fatima, is an energetic person with a good sense of humour, and her presence is powerful and gives balance to the film.

Is film a form of preservation, of capturing for posterity what is in front of the filmmaker today?

Film does work as a form of preservation, but first and foremost I make my films for the audience of today. I have a message I want to get across to my audience, hoping to create discussion and change.

Your documentary often feels like a narrative film. How do you approach the subject to make it flow as a complete, cinematic story?

My style of filmmaking is observing the lives of my characters, I don’t like long interviews or voice overs. I follow the characters for a long time, and I shot a lot of material, in the case of School of Hope I followed the tribe for three years. Also, when I work I keep in mind the story structure and try to find situations that could fit the dramaturgy.

Finally, how would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

I’m a Moroccan-Finnish filmmaker. I have a Master’s degree from Bond University, Australia. I have worked for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, for eight years, making short documentaries. I’m now working as a freelance filmmaker, and my aim is to give voice to the voiceless, and tackling taboos and human rights issues.

For a review by MIME's Editor in Chief Mark Adams, check this link. To watch School of Hope during Hot Docs, purchase a ticket here.

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