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Interview with ‘Traitors’ director Sean Gullette

Interview with ‘Traitors’ director Sean Gullette


Sean Gullette, writer and director of Traitors, is known for his many collaborations with Harvard friend and colleague Darren Aronofsky. Playing the lead role and sharing story credit in Aronofsky’s debut feature, Pi, Gullette has since acted in two dozen films, including Requiem for a Dream and Happy Accidents. Now Gullette is bringing his masterful crime drama to Tribeca 2014 as part of a special partnership with Venice Days, where a European film is showcased and selected to have its international premiere at TFF.

Recently, Sound on Sight had a chance to interview Guilette on his thoughts on filmmaking, the impact of strong female leads in today’s cinema, and his views on punk rock music.. For the review of Traitors, check out our coverage of Tribeca 2014.

SOS: What inspired you to make the 2010 short film version into a full-length film?

SG: After the short screened at the 2011 New York Film Festival, filmmaker friends including Darren [Aronofsky] said it felt like a fragment of a larger story. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first.

Then I heard a troubling story about a young woman who wanted to stop working as a drug mule, and her bosses didn’t want her to quit. That story ended very badly and it stuck with me.

In Cannes in 2011, my favorite film was Laila Kilani’s On the Edge — I came out stoked, and at the party afterwards I met Soufia Issami, the lead in that and realized she had to be the drug mule, Amal. Amal is of a same generation as Malika and I couldn’t help imagining how Malika would have reacted to meeting this enslaved girl: the instinct would be immediately to defy this corrupt patriarchy and help out the girl in danger. But could she actually defy this very harsh, organized gang and survive? I wanted to know what would happen.

SOS: It’s interesting to see that in the awake of the Tangier political protest, punk rock music is a pivotal theme to the film and to our protagonist’s characterization. Given the political nature of punk rock music, especially in 1980s Britain, how do you think it holds up today in a post-colonial Arab world? And how big was music to the development of the film?

SG: When we shot the first 30-minute section of Traitors in December 2010, Morocco was asleep. After decades of colonial and post-colonial submission and low self-esteem, it felt as though politics and history had dead-ended in the Kingdom of the Setting Sun. In this context, my script was like science-fiction, or a flashback to Morocco’s activist decades.

We were setting out to invent a small corner of the country where a band of teenage girls were singing songs of political critique, being “traitors” to parental and state authority, living off their emotions, re-inventing the bond of rock & roll to freedom. A country where the raw energy of teenagers was being turned into action and revolt. And dozens of Tangier kids came out to help make the movie, over nine wild nights in the streets.

But once it was over, it was over. Back in the real country, the streets were empty by 9 p.m., and the kids went back to normal life: apathetic, apolitical, and bored to distraction. The band, their lyrics, their rebel aesthetic: it was all pure fantasy.

Then suddenly, a few months later, it came true. February 20th was the night we screened Traitors for our amateur cast and crew, and the day saw the largest political protest in Tangier since independence in 1956. Today, 20 Fevrier is the name of the popular movement — what we used to call the Arab Spring in Morocco.

That February 20th, the Traitors kids snuck out of their parents’ homes, and made their way through a city that was vividly awake: crowds pouring down the Boulevard Pasteur, glass breaking, cars burning, people arguing and organizing via Facebook, chanting in the streets. We unlocked the gates at to the back door of the darkened Cinematheque de Tanger and let them in, breathless with excitement, to see the 30-minute movie.

Two weeks after that, the King of Morocco spoke on TV and announced a program of reforms. He mentioned many of the subjects the girls sing about in their songs: corruption, education, health care, change. During the country’s first electoral campaign, the newly elected government “talked the talk.” Now, Moroccans are watching vigilantly to see if they can “walk the walk” – deliver on their rhetoric.

SOS: Malika, our protagonist, is the definition of a strong female character. She really holds to her guns and marches to the beat of her own drum. Did you always envision Malika to be so impervious to external threats?

SG: As a reader and writer, I have always been drawn to female protagonists and girl power. For instance, I always loved a comic book (bande-dessine) called “Love and Rockets” about Latina girls in the punk rock scene in East Los Angeles in the 80s.  Malika is just my kind of girl. Certain young people have the power to change their destiny and their environment. They act boldly because they are confident that their intentions are pure, and so their power can be transcendental, smart, and ruthless. It’s no coincidence that music, rebel politics, and life on the edges of crime are central to the experience of youth on fire: all three can expand our powers in miraculous ways. Adults may regard that fire with condescending smiles. But when young people like Malika confront the established logic of the “adult” world, anything can happen. As the father of a young daughter, I pay even more attention to what kinds of roles are written for women.

SOS: How much does actress Chaimae Ben Acha bring to Malika’s character?

SG: People are saying Chaimae could be a big star in the pan-Arab cinema and beyond, and I agree — when you know how calm and conservative she is in real life, and then you see her play Malika, you begin to understand her range.  They are so different  but her actor’s instinct went to what they have in common: integrity, inability to compromise, toughness, passion, thick-headedness. And they are both fighting to be artists in a context that doesn’t always appreciate that.

Souffia is incredible, too. Both of them are on to great things.

SOS: For a film that relies on very heavy topics like abduction, drug smuggling, and abuse, there isn’t much on-screen violence portrayed in the film. Was this a conscious decision, and how do you think the film would have changed if violence was portrayed more graphically?

SG: It could have been tougher. When Haj finds Amal is carrying coke in her purse — well, a slap and a going over with high-pressure water is nothing compared to the real punishment. And in reality, the first thing the bad guys would have done to Malika once Amal vanished is hang her upside-down by her feet and start smacking her around.

But I’m wary of violence in the almost docu-fiction context we were working in, and it’s hard to pull off convincingly and safely on a low budget.

SOS: I enjoy how mysterious the characters are in the film, providing little to no backstory. The audience has to place certain pieces together in order to get a deeper understanding of their past. To this regard, the character Samir is in a wheelchair without us knowing why. Can you give us insight to his background that is perhaps off the script?

SG: Haj called Samir “Zmigri” — Émigré. He’s a Moroccan who has gone away to Belgium — worked in the drug business, he got fucked up in street violence in Brussels, and decided to come back to Tangier to buy his dope closer to the source and multiply his return on investment. A kilo of hash is worth X in the mountains; 2X in Tangier; 5X when it hits the border of Europe and 10X in Paris or Brussels. He’s a smart businessman. But the real Moroccans from the Rif are tougher than him.

SOS: Malika’s motto, “If you are a hammer, strike,” is very poignant in the film. What is the origin of that line?   

SG: It’s a Moroccan proverb: the first half is “If you are a nail, endure the knocking.” Interesting how it turns the fatalism that many Westerners associate with Islam on its head.

SOS: After watching Traitors, I’m excited to see your next film. What project should we look out for next?

SG: Our next film, Tangier, is a thriller with a political subtext, with movie star actors, and is now financing and identifying co-production partners, ahead of a shoot in summer 2015 . It will be an international coproduction, including Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures, Traitors‘ awesome producer Audrey Rosenberg and European and Moroccan partners. Tangier is going to be a  grown-up thriller:  evolved, mature, dark, erotic, complex, political, stylish, and provocative.

– Christopher Clemente