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Asmae El Moudir

Asmae El Moudir Uncovers Her Family’s Truth in “The Mother of All Lies”

Asmae El Moudir with her “Granny” puppet (Marc Sagliocco/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

One could attempt to summarize The Mother of All Lies by filmmaker Asmae El Moudir with the Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The Mother of All Lies, which screened January 22 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, is a beautiful mix of marionettes and diorama and real people (the filmmaker’s family) in a real house. It’s a blend of Arabic and French, pleasant memories and much darker ones. This Spotlight documentary film about the 1981 Casablanca Bread Riots in El Moudir’s home country of Morocco took 10 years to make, but her patience has paid off. 

In 2012, El Moudir was wondering why she had no pictures of her family — she couldn’t even see herself as a little girl. In 2016, when helping her family move, she discovered that tombs would be erected over remains near her house. The area had once been a soccer field where her father played as a goalie. She pressed her family for more information and was met with anger, especially from her grandmother, Zahra, for prying a little too much. El Moudir discovered that the remains were those of young protestors, and proper Muslim monuments were being put in place to honor the dead.

The filmmaker learned that the people killed had dared to protest the government. During the Bread Riots, 600 young people were killed in one day when Casablanca residents protested the rising cost of food. This history was very slowly unraveled to El Moudir, whose family did everything they could to keep her inquisitiveness at bay. 

A still from “The Mother of All Lies” by Asmae El Moudir, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Insightfilms.

El Moudir narrates the film with the watchful eye of her real-life grandmother always “dictating” behind the scenes. Very often, the viewer will see the director’s grandma poke her cane into the camera or shoo away a question she feels is aggravating. Meanwhile, her mother tends to smile away unpleasant thoughts. The director’s voice is often a whispering lullaby that is narrating this family’s particular nightmare — one that has been buried for quite some time and refuses to come to the surface. The day of the riots, the grandmother, the matriarch, did her best to keep her family indoors to prevent them from being harmed. Some in the family appreciate this — others not so much.

El Moudir could not film easily in her hometown, so, with the help of her father, she created a diorama replica of the place where her family lived. Each member of her family, herself included, has a miniature marionette that is animated by the director. Of course, the grandmother dislikes the re-creation. 

At the Sundance showcase of her film, El Moudir talks about her “Granny’s” visit to the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023 to see the premiere of her granddaughter’s work. In English subtitles in the film, Granny was described as a “killjoy.” No matter how cute at times she appears, in both human and puppet form, there is a pain and an anger visible in her face. Granny does not like photos, preferring memories instead. 

One audience member asks how El Moudir convinced her to film, and she says that she showed her grandmother a picture of two famous Moroccan actresses and threatened to have them portray her in the re-creations. Granny said they were “too ugly” and reluctantly decided to participate. 

“So many people came up to me and asked to put my Granny in their films. She is hard! I said, ‘You work with her!’” El Moudir laughs. When anyone approached her grandmother at the premiere of the film at Cannes, she wondered if they thought she was a prime minister or president. Her granddaughter considers Granny the real director of the documentary.

Now the filmmaker is committed to archiving a history that many people in her generation do not know. Using puppets, she hopes, will allow someone to keep the narrative alive for generations to come. She is optimistic about the future of art in her country, saying that it is now more accepted and celebrated. 

And presently, El Moudir has many pictures. She even starts her Q&As with selfies of her with the audiences, including the one at Sundance. And although her tough Granny can’t make the trek to the United States, her puppet doppelganger has been on tour with her, posing for snaps with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. 

The Mother of All Lies will be released in late February in France and Morocco.