Director: Maryam Touzani (France, Morocco, Belgium, Denmark). Year of Release: 2022
Salé, North-West Morocco. A tailor’s shop. Halim is a Maalem, or master tailor, clinging on to his dying trade. The dresses which he makes take time to produce, and are thus much more expensive that the mass-produced tat made with items of new technology like sewing machines. Although it’s become hard to tell the difference between mass produced clothes and those which have been individually hand crafted, no machine can contribute the same amount of care invested by Halim.
Halim’s shop is run by his wife Mina, who is low on social graces, and resents the rich customers who keep on passing by asking when there dress will be ready. Mina regularly tells them if they’re not satisfied they might look somewhere else, which is not very wise as there are plenty of other tailors in town, who are able to offer much lower prices and quality. Things are made worse after Mina is struck down by a serious illness and has to spend time off work.
Halim takes on an apprentice, Youssef – a quiet young man with dark doey eyes. The question is whether Youssef will disappear to a more secure job. But when Halim and Youssef are near to each other, there is a frisson of sublimed sexual tension, not least when Youssef takes his top off to change inside the shop. Halim teaches Youssef the trade, his hand guiding those of the younger man through the delicate sewing required to adorn the elaborate dresses.
Mina is as rude to Youssef as she is to her rich customers. She tells him off at any available moment, and accuses him of stealing fabric. When it becomes clear that he is innocent, she finds it difficult to apologise. Youssef shrugs off the accusations, saying that he’s looked after himself since he was 8, and just doesn’t care enough about money to consider stealing. For as long as he can, he sits in the back of the shop, sewing.
Despite the fond shared glances, no physical relationship develops between Halim and Youssef. Instead, the older man relieves his sexual tensions through meaningless sex in the Turkish baths which he visits after work. On one occasion, it looks like Halim’s relationship with Youssef may go further. Halim retreats, and in response Youssef stops working and avoids any further contact. They only reunite when it becomes clear that Mina’s illness is more serious than she’s been admitting.
Notwithstanding Halim’s sexuality, he maintains a loving relationship with Mina. They share moments of shared joy over relatively unimportant tender moments, such as a surprize meal which she cooks for him or him fondly feeding her tangerines. At one stage Halim, Mina and Youssef all dance on the balcony to the sound of the music of a sound system below. In their dancing they share a certain unity while each one is clearly on their own.
Towards the end of the film, we see the sign of a mastectomy on Mina’s upper body, and realise that the disease which has struck her down must be cancer. Halim always treats her with utter affection, although as she is on her way out, she tells him to follow his dreams and never to be afraid of love. You feel that although her husband’s dalliances may hurt while she is alive, she has no problems with his sexuality as such and sincerely wishes him a happy future.
This is a film that is very good at what is does. The fact that I wasn’t entranced may well be as much my problem as that of the film. It reflects the slow painstaking work which Halim puts into his work. He worships long-lasting quality, like that of the 50-year old dress which a customer wants replacing (everyone who could have repaired it is dead). I get why many critics love the film, but “slow” and “painstaking” are not exactly the first thing I am looking for in a night out.
Das Blau des Kaftans is clearly a progressive film on many levels, not least in its treatment of sexual identity. But on other levels, it is quite conservative. It worships the old traditions, and implicitly blames ordinary people for not hanging onto the past. The only people who are able to afford Halim’s dresses are rich families who can afford to throw money at the vanities of fashion. What is valued in Halim’s work is not the craftsmanship but the fact that poor people can’t afford it.
More than one review has said that same sex relationships are seen as being particularly problematic in Arab countries, home to religious toleration which of course does not exist in places like Poland and the USA. This presumed Muslim intolerance would be news to Joe Orton, who used to visit North Africa for casual sex when gay sex was still illegal in the UK. While Morocco may have one of the most repressive governments, public attitudes are much more complicated.
This is not to say that the Morocco in Das Blau des Kaftans is free of repression. In one scene, Halim and Mina are controlled by aggressive soldiers who are patrolling their neighbourhood. Their fear that public knowledge of Halim’s sexuality will bring down great shame is not to do with their own bourgeois morality, but because of real fear of an authoritarian state. But to depict this fear as a purely Muslim thing is to ignore equally real repression closer to home.
In summary, this is a righteous film which would love society to be more tolerant, but concentrates on individual tragedies rather than in people coming together. This makes it prone to sentimentality, and a focus on the tragic fate of individuals. If I say that many people like this sort of stuff, I hope I’m not being condescending. This is a film which offers a lot to people who are prepared to meet it half way. I’m afraid that I wasn’t.