Film: The human volcano
Said Taghmaoui's anger first exploded on to our screens in La Haine. Hollywood has been on his trail ever since, but Morocco's first bona fide film star is the last person to compromise with 'show business'.
Thursday 04 February 1999
It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see why director Gillies MacKinnon (who launched a number of young Brits in Small Faces) cast him as Bilal, the irrepressible Marrakesh acrobat who takes up with a young English hippy (Kate Winslet) and her two daughters in Hideous Kinky, an adaptation of Esther Freud's novel. To prepare for the role, Taghmaoui spent a month training as an acrobat before plying his trade in one of the world's most competitive arenas - Marrakesh's seething central square, the Djemaa el Fna. "You have to be really strong to get the attention of all those people," he sighs. But somehow I'm sure he managed.
Hideous Kinky lights up whenever Taghmaoui is on screen. "He's a volcano," says MacKinnon. "Even when he's physically put a lid on it, you can tell by his eyes that it could all erupt at any moment." Before acting, Taghmaoui was a boxer, and it's easy to imagine him strutting about in the ring, arms raised in triumph.
Born and brought up in Paris, the youngest of 10 in a family of Moroccan immigrants, Taghmaoui remains intensely proud of his Berber heritage. His family come from near Essaouira, itself something of a magnet for hippies in the Sixties when Jimi Hendrix hosted parties on the beach there. When not extolling the culture and tradition of his spiritual homeland, Taghmaoui is keen to promote its strengths as an ideal film location. "Morocco has the best light I've seen in my life," he says. "And good professionals - a lot of movies are made there, with the best directors in the world."
A couple of years ago, when Taghmaoui was acting in The Garden of Eden, one of the Italian biblical epics that seem to be permanently shooting at the enormous Atlas Studios outside the southern desert town of Ouarzazate, Scorsese was across the way shooting Kundun, with the High Atlas standing in for Tibet.
"King Hassan is very proud of me," Taghmaoui states matter-of-factly. It's easy to understand why: Taghmaoui isn't just a one-man tourist board, but the first Moroccan to make it big in international cinema (with the possible exception of Fassbinder's muse and sometime lover, El Hedi ben Salem, who came to a bad end, hanging himself in a French jail). Taghmaoui won't be drawn to speculate on Morocco's future when Hassan, who has kept a tight grip on the country for nearly 40 years, finally dies. But when the conversation strays to neighbouring Algeria, the volcano suddenly flashes again. "Of course this country's fucked up, after 150 years of colonialism," he snaps. "Imagine, I come to your house and say to your children, 'You're not allowed to speak English. The first person who speaks English, I will fuck his mother.' Imagine this for 150 years."
The anger in his eyes will be familiar to anyone who saw La Haine, the film which rocked France in 1994. An explosive day in the life of three disaffected young men from the troubled banlieues of Paris, it revolved around Taghmaoui's Said, the character we follow from the film's opening shot, and the only one still alive at the end. Taghmaoui was only 21 when he helped director Mathieu Kassovitz write La Haine, which went on to win the scriptwriting prize at Cannes. "A lot of things happened when La Haine came out," he says wistfully. "People burned cinemas in France. But you think a movie's going to change anything? A revolution is made with weapons, not with movies."
After La Haine's international success, Taghmaoui was courted by Hollywood, but never found a script he liked. He got to meet Tom Cruise, but he remains defiantly unfazed by celebrity, including that of his Hideous Kinky co- star Winslet, who since shooting the film in Morocco in 1997 has been transformed into the star of the Most Successful Film of All Time, complete with entourage. (She is holding court in a neighbouring room - presumably why we're at the Dorchester in the first place.)
"When you're really hungry, and you have nothing to eat," Taghmaoui asks rhetorically, "who is impressive then? Maybe an apple is impressive. What's important is what you put in the movie - on la pellicule - because that will stay. All the blah blah blah, the fashion, is just show business. But cinema and show business are two different things. Sometimes they have to deal together, that's all."
However, Taghmaoui has succumbed to the lure of Hollywood, and is about to star alongside George Clooney in Three Kings, a film about the Gulf War by David O Russell, known for the spiky comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. Hollywood has had a pretty blinkered view of Arab issues - "horrible, racist" is how Taghmaoui describes the depiction of Islamic terrorists in True Lies and Executive Decision. But Three Kings, he says, will break the mould. "According to this film, the war is only for oil, not to save Kuwait," he says. "It's Apocalypse Now for the Gulf War." The volcano, you sense, is almost ready to erupt.
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