Harvard Film Archive's Steffen Pierce to Debut Feature Film Saturday
Steffen Pierce, filmmaker and Assistant Curator of the Harvard Film Archive, talks with Iranian filmmaker Bahman Kiarostami at an HFA event in the Carpenter Center. Pierce introduced Kiarostami's film.
December 15, 2006 - In the 1980s when Steffen Pierce, Assistant Curator of the Harvard Film Archive, spent several years working as a photographer in southern Spain, he fell in love with the country and culture of nearby Morocco, and took advantage of the opportunity to visit close to every other month. Later when a New York producer hired him to return to Morocco and Algiers to write a script on the French historical figure Charles de Foucauld, he took the job—but the film was never made. In frustration, Pierce decided to turn to small-budget films that he could make himself. Two decades later, Pierce, working in collaboration with brother and fellow filmmaker Christian, has channeled his familiarity with Morocco to produce two movies filmed there on location.
This Saturday, December 16, Pierce and his brother will debut their feature film, Marrakech Inshallah, at the HFA in a special screening and meet-the-director event. Pierce, who has been with the HFA for 15 years, was motivated to make the fictional film after his experiences with the brothers’ first movie made on Moroccan soil, the documentary The Bride Market of Imilchil (1988). At the time, the Pierces interviewed two dozen individuals for their film and only later, after they had returned to the United States, learned that everyone they’d spoken to had been arrested and "re-interviewed" by Moroccan authorities.
"That was a real shock and created awareness on my part, and my brother’s part, that the documentary filmmaking process is not as benign as we thought," says Pierce. Like many documentary filmmakers he saw his work as a way of bridging cultural divides and bringing different cultures into closer contact with one another. He had wanted the film to have a positive political impact, to begin to create a dialogue between two opposing cultures. "When these individuals were arrested because of us, it was a real wakeup call and an insight into the realities of making films in the Third World."
It led the Pierce brothers to examine the conflicts inherent in the documentary process (the obligations of documentary filmmakers to their subjects, and cultural differences) and inspired them to make the fictional Marrakech Inshallah. The latter tries to address the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject when, at the end of the film, the main characters run into a Western documentary film crew, sparking a misunderstanding. Pierce himself, in a one-minute acting debut, plays the filmmaker.
Pierce has spent years completing Marrakech Inshallah due to the fundamental difficulties of independent filmmakers everywhere: time and money. "Making these independent films is a labor of love," he explains, talking about the process of filming and editing while simultaneously managing other logistics such as hiring translators and applying for grants. Because Marrakech Inshallah was filmed in Arabic (with English subtitles), the Pierces hired at least seven translators during both production and postproduction. In the case of grants, Marrakech Inshallah was funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
"Inshallah" is a common term in the Muslim world, according to Pierce, that means "God willing" in Arabic. The film’s title refers to the main character Aziz and his hope that—God willing—he will realize his dream of leaving his mountain village for a better life in the city of Marrakech. "It’s the classic story of young men looking for better lives in a bigger city in Africa, but things of course don’t work out," says Pierce.
Shot in Arabic and Berber and using local actors, the 90-minute movie was filmed in the Moroccan cities of Marrakech, Rich, and Essouaira over a period of three months on Kodachrome super 8 stock.
Looking to reach audiences in both the English and Arab-speaking world, the Pierces have submitted Marrakech Inshallah to Sundance. They also plan to submit it to film festivals in Cairo, Marrakesh, Ankara, Tel Aviv, Burkina Faso, and Tunisia, as well as various U.S. and European film festivals, including those in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Cannes, and Vienna.
Meanwhile, Pierce has already begun work on his next film, The Road to Realidad, about the Zapatista revolutionary movement in Mexico. He’s spent two months shooting on location and hopes to go back for additional footage. "I was arrested and thrown out of the country the last time I was shooting in Mexico because I tried to film in a refugee camp outside of San Cristobal in southern Mexico," he says. "The camp had been set up by the Zapatistas and Doctors Without Borders as a haven for refugees from attacks by vigilante groups. Unfortunately, I was stopped by the Mexican army before I could enter the camp."
It may take time, but it doesn’t sound like Pierce will let that stop his movie. "Even with challenges like these, the privilege of being able to make documentary or fiction films in a place like Mexico or Morocco or North Africa has changed my life and has made me the person I am today," says Pierce. "And it’s enhanced my work here at the HFA. It’s given me an insight into the filmmakers that come here, and an appreciation of the struggle to make any film. When new collections come into the Harvard Film Archive, my background as a filmmaker makes it easier to comprehend the nature of these collections. Sometimes the filmmaker will have created multiple versions of his films or run out of money and not finished a project, yet the rough cut or the segments of his or her unfinished film is there in the collection. Having gone through this process myself, it makes the detective work involved in dealing with film collections that much more possible."
The HFA’s special screening of Marrakech Inshallah is scheduled for Saturday, December 16, at 7 pm and will be followed by a brief Q&A with the Steffen and Christian Pierce. Admission is $8 for the general public, and $6 for students and senior citizens.
Brooke Holgerson, HFA Editorial Assistant, contributed to this release.