In a slum where soccer balls skitter and poverty is deep, coaxing voices lead young men and boys to terror. Talk of God turns to incantations on holy war and the youths, who have been promised martyrdom and paradise, slip on backpacks of crude explosives and march toward the glare of the corrupt city.
“Horses of God,” a film by Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch, is set amid the welter of metal shops and clattering houses at the edge of Casablanca. It is a parallel world of stinging dust and compressed rage, where boys, whose dreams and dignity vanish before they’re men, turn into malleable recruits for extremists holding the Koran in one hand and fused gunpowder in the other.
The film is an imagining of the disappointments and twisted enticements that in 2003 inspired 12 suicide bombers from the shantytown of Sidi Moumen to attack a tourist hotel, Spanish restaurant, Jewish community center and other targets. Forty-five people, including the bombers, were killed in the blasts, which came two months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and emboldened Islamic radicals across North Africa and the Middle East.
“How do 10-year-old boys grow into suicide bombers? I wanted to grab the truth from them, to get deeply inside them and away from stereotypes,” said Ayouch, who largely relied on nonprofessional actors. “I don’t buy that poverty makes suicide bombers. Otherwise, there’d be billions of them. These boys and young men feel they’re [shunned by] the world. They are not connected to progress. The slums are open-air prisons. There’s no way out.”
“Horses of God” was Morocco’s foreign language Academy Award entry and was shown at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. Its U.S. theatrical release is set for May in New York, where it will be introduced by director Jonathan Demme, who has championed it as “thought-provoking cinema.” The Arabic-language film is expected to be shown across the country.
Demme, who won the best director Academy Award for “Silence of the Lambs,” said he saw Ayouch’s film in Marrakech, Morocco, “and it just blew me away. It’s Scorsese quality.” He added that “Horses of God” brings depth and understanding to radicalism much the same way that “City of God” offered a visceral portrait of poverty and crime in the Rio de Janeiro.
“I was shocked to hear that ‘Horses of God’ had no U.S. distributor,” said Demme, who last year invited Ayouch to be filmmaker-in-residence at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., a nonprofit focusing on documentaries and world cinema. He helped arrange for Kino Lorber to distribute the film in the U.S., where he said Ayouch’s work could inform “our horrendously complicated feelings” about Islam, terrorism and the Arab world.
Movies often reduce terrorists to one-dimensional fanatics. In recent years, however, Middle Eastern directors have rendered complex portraits of identities and cultural histories that can instigate violence: “Paradise Now” by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad is the tale of friends preparing to become suicide bombers, and “The Attack” by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, who once worked as a camera assistant for Quentin Tarantino, is the saga of a Muslim doctor confronting the prospect that his wife was the bomber who targeted a Tel Aviv restaurant.
The tricky mix of militant psychology and political or religious motivation is not always ingrained deeply enough. In 2003 in the mountains of northern Iraq, The Times interviewed a would-be suicide bomber who had trained in a terrorist camp for months. On the day of his mission, he slipped on a vest laden with explosives and was driven toward his target. He had been promised glory, virgins and paradise, but he could not press the red ignition switch in his hand.
“While I was in the car, I kept thinking how I’d approach God in the second world,” said Didar Khalid Khidir, 20. “They dropped me off, and I walked to the checkpoint. Something happened to me. I didn’t want to do it. I felt pushed by them. I felt ashamed to admit it. But after they dropped me off, the pressure was gone, and I was scared. The guards must have seen the color go out of my face.”
“Horses of God” follows Hamid and his younger brother, Yachine, through the squalor and joys of childhood and across the daily defeats and denied aspirations that tilt them toward fanaticism. A drug dealer arrested for assaulting a policeman, Hamid emerges from prison as an Islamist. His transformation unsettles Yachine, a mechanic too poor to marry the neighborhood girl he glimpses in windows and alleys. But Yachine’s shrinking prospects for a life beyond grit and alienation lead him into his brother’s fold.
Handlers with beards and soothing timbres start with religious lessons that gradually shift to questions of dignity and self-respect and exhortations of stopping the infidel from defiling the Muslim world. Without raised voices or histrionics, the older men cite the Koran and praise the recruits as horses of God for whom the gates of heaven will open. The youths become a cloistered family; virtue and militancy are one in a deft brainwashing that leads to ablution, wires and packed gunpowder.
“These boys lack love and a future. They have no direction, no authority,” said Ayouch, who has directed documentaries on Islam and runs film-education classes in Morocco’s slums. “So when they meet these fundamentalists, the fruit is already ripe. They just have to pick it, it’s hanging so low on the branches. The extremists give them a sense of belonging.”
With a screenplay by Jamal Belmahi, which he adapted from a novel by Mahi Binebine, “Horses of God” examines the lessons militants receive at an outpost run by an expert in explosives and hand-to-hand combat. The film’s tone, marked by camera work that captures the claustrophobia of the slums, shifts from desperation to a sense of precision and purpose as the young men approach their final hours.
Sitting poolside at a Palm Springs hotel in January, Ayouch, who spoke French-accented English, said the upheavals across the Arab world since 2011 were altering the dynamics of terrorism and political Islam. He said the religious messages of Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, were too narrow and oblivious to the economic concerns of a disenchanted young generation. The Brotherhood’s brief control of the government ended in a coup last year.
“Islamists believed that after the revolutions of the Arab Spring that it was their time to rule,” said Ayouch, whose influences include Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. “But religion even in the Arab world cannot be stronger than the economy or the larger problems in people’s lives. People are now saying, ‘If you don’t have a plan to make our lives better, we don’t want your religion.’”
He added: “I’m working on a feature now about what the Arab world will look like in 50 years. It’s a time of struggle among the classes similar to what happened in Europe and the U.S. The lower and middle classes are demanding more of their share. The story’s about social injustice and how the poor and rich see this. The future will be about class, not religion. Religion for so long was used as a tool. But people are not stupid.”
Militant strands permeate the struggle between moderate and conservative Islamists over how deeply religion will shape public life. In Syria, Egypt and across the hinterlands of Tunisia, extremists remain determined to impose a harsh interpretation of God’s law. They are a fringe but dangerous voice, and the power of Ayouch’s film is that they are not caricatures. They offer a strange and dangerous solace to confused, angry and sexually repressed youths.
Lying in the dark before his suicide mission, Yachine wonders how the girl he loves but cannot have will remember him: “What will Ghislaine think when she hears I died a martyr?” Yachine asks a friend. “Will she be sad? Happy? How will she take it?”
“There are loads [of virgins] in paradise. Hundreds of Ghislaines, thousands. ...” replies the friend.