Sharif Nasr. Photo: Curly X Straight
At first glance el houb an oppressive lgbtqia+ drama in Moroccan-Dutch culture. But Shariff Nasr’s feature film debut is above all a plea for dialogue. “It’s a universal love story about a family learning to talk about sensitive issues.”
While the gay protagonist Karim, after he came out, spent most of it el houb literally in the cupboard under the stairs of his parents’ home, ignored by his parents and sometimes only exchanging heated words with his brother, it’s hard to imagine that this film was born out of immense hospitality, cordiality and nothing but love.
el houb (Moroccan for ‘love’) started as a thought experiment. The Palestinian-Dutch director and screenwriter Shariff Nasr was visiting family in Jordan and Palestine. As always, he was warmly welcomed, like a long-lost family member, who is widely prepared, with the very best dishes, and who absolutely had to pass everyone else because they would feel faint.
In the midst of all that cordiality, at one point, as Nasr himself puts it, his Dutch half arose. “I suddenly wondered: Will all these loving people love me less if I fell for men? I don’t think so, but I knew at the same time that it wouldn’t be easy.”
“The image from the film about the MENA community [Midden-Oosten en Noord-Afrika; AZ] is that you either choose your family or your sexuality. But what if you want both, if you want to combine it? This film was born from that idea. To bring out a different picture, something we have to talk about.”
Nasr graduated from the Film Academy in the direction of screenwriting, although he quickly combined this with directing lessons: “I increasingly found that my scripts were interpreted differently than I saw them, so I started assisting on the sets of graduation films and later even take instructor courses”.
In 2007, he already wrote the script for a graduation film with a similar theme. the film, Color me bad by Hesdy Lonwijk, kept singing around in his head. In this short film about a Moroccan Dutchman with doubts about his sexual preference, it was about the choice between family or sexual orientation.
“I don’t think there is a film about the MENA community or the Arab community that is about the dialogue. Emotional topics are often not discussed. Not only about orientation, but also about topics such as suicide, depression and mental health in general. Because such topics are not discussed, one does not know what the other is thinking. It is not just something of the Arab world; worldwide, there are plenty of countries with a culture of silence. It used to be no different in the Netherlands and I still hear harrowing stories from areas here.”
Nasr immediately wants to clarify that he is not pointing a pedantic finger. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to condemn or stigmatize. el houb does not attack the community or the faith, but tells about a family that suddenly has to learn to deal with something. Everyone has their own point of view and that is what needs to be discussed and understood. It’s like an onion you peel. Each time there is a new layer and another layer. Like a psychological drama where you get to know the perspectives and where even the main character has not yet accepted himself.”
Contrary to his own origins, Nasr placed his film in Moroccan-Dutch society. The Palestinian community in the Netherlands is so small that it would quickly become too specific. To guarantee authenticity and also to be able to find enough actors, Nasr chose to set the drama in a family from the largest Arab community in the Netherlands: the Moroccan one.
The lead actor Fahd Larhzaoui was the first he met el houb the work. “We already knew each other and sat down one on one to form the story.” Also with Tofik Dibi, who, like Larhzaoui, is of Moroccan descent, Nasr again and again went into discussions to identify the cultural differences, but also to clarify the perspective. Because what is it like if you, as a man, fall for men and how did it go for them?
Nasr is not afraid to tread on thin ice as a heterosexual creator from a different culture than he portrays in his film. “If the interest is genuine, it is inevitable that there will be a genuine film. As long as you don’t do it as a gimmick because something is hot or feels ‘exotic’. I know Arab society inside and out. There are certainly differences with Moroccan society, but many are recognisable. I started talking a lot, not only to Fahd and Tofik, but to dozens of people from the Moroccan community, to get everything as authentic as possible and to fact-check it. I even have two more weeks with good friend Sahil Amar Aïssa [presentator BNNVARA; AZ] traveled through Morocco and rewrote many scenes. The actors have also been given control over the script and as a result it has become a very original story. Can I tell a story about this as a straight man? I think so myself. I don’t think this is necessarily an LGBTQIA+ story, but a universal love story about a family learning to talk about sensitive issues.”
In the cabinet
The tightness of el houb is reinforced by the fact that the family home is hardly left behind. Four people in a small room, one of whom wants to start the conversation the others don’t want to have. And at the heart of both the house and the film is the completely literal metaphor that carries over almost the entire length: Karim coming out to his parents, but quickly diving back into the stairwell and trying to conduct the dialogue from there.
“The first image I had of the film was someone coming out to his parents and then fleeing into the pantry under the stairs in a panic. To me, that was just the place where he hid as a little kid and felt safe, and now again because otherwise he can’t handle the conversation There must be a door between him because he has so much respect for his parents and that face-to-face dare not.”
“When I got the ‘Oh, in the closet, out of the closet’ comment, we looked at moving elsewhere, but it just didn’t work. He should be in a place where he is really in the middle of the household, a place where no one can avoid him and where he can hear everything. You can’t ignore him, and of course his mom, dad, and brother try to. They prefer to ignore him. As is very often the case when you keep a topic quiet: it may not be spoken, but it rushes on. It continues to exist. Eventually it just gets bigger and bigger until it assumes monstrous proportions. Too many people suffer in silence with disastrous consequences for individuals and families. We hope this film can break that silence.”
Above all, Nasr sees his film as an invitation to talk. No matter what society or culture the viewer comes from. Looking around, he sees some real communication.
With noticeable irritation: “Everyone has an opinion too quickly. We no longer listen to each other. Social media has really amplified that. No matter how ridiculous your opinion, you can always find like-minded people on social media. Then you will soon no longer be ashamed of a stupid opinion. I also see this polarization in talk shows, where one extreme is often contrasted with the other. Everyone is arguing, we don’t know, the end of the show. In the talk shows of the past, it seemed as if the host would draw some kind of conclusion at the end. I miss that now. No one says: I understand your side, I understand your pain, what can we change? When I watch a talk show these days, no one is looking for a solution. What we are looking for is a highly staged fight, ratings and sensation, disguised as good dialogue. What you see is not a dialogue, but two monologues. We listened to that and then we move on. I miss the shades of gray and I’m looking for it el houb. There is much between the black and white that surrounds us. Only when we seriously start talking about it will we ensure a better future.”