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Leïla Kilani

At home at Mansouria, a luxurious but decrepit estate in the hills above Tangier, Lina devotes her time to studying the birds and producing her amusing vlog followed by thousands of viewers online. Driven both by her dreams of getting back to nature and her desire to rebel, at the tender age of 13, she berates her family as she discovers the games of passion that dictate the course of the world: greed, power relations, anger, love and so on. Although the young girl takes a vow of silence after the death of her mother, her feisty verve and bittersweet voice fuel a feverish film with tragic overtones. Birdland structures its narration full of twists and turns around two opposing worlds. Firstly, the Bechtani clan, a family of fading grandeur tearing itself apart over the sale of the estate. Then, there’s the villagers, poor people who live there and their well-founded fear of expulsion orchestrated by the real estate developers with their eye on Mansouria. Embodied by an outstanding troupe of actors, Birdland is a teeming, tumultuous family saga shaped by the impulses of its characters. Leïla Kilani uses this as the catalyst for an astonishing flood of speech driven by the whirling transitions from Arabic to French and the relationship with language of her main protagonist, who is mute. Lina covers her body with words and questions written in black pen while the exchanges with her viewers, written directly on the screen, give a lively commentary on the action of the film itself. Birdland stylishly embraces the excess of youth and offers a unique translation of the urgencies and intensities of adolescence confronted with the upheavals of a changing world.

Claire Lasolle

After On the Edge (Sur la planche, 2011), how did this long-running project Birdland come about? 

After On the Edge, I tried to escape from my geography and genealogy, and not make a film in Tangier. But it was impossible – I always come back here. It’s a mad love story between us, a stormy passion that reinvents itself. I love the mutant Tangier, the one that changes its skin every day, not the mythical, not the bohemian, not the chic Tangier. I’m captivated by its cinematic power. You just have to look up at the blue sky, the building sites, the cranes, the dykes, the holes, the excavations and the birds. It’s a haunting landscape; a landscape carved with a knife that scratches your retina and that you want to film from every angle. Tangier is a city that describes the world, our day and age, its chaos, its issues. Maybe this is what a world city is all about. I wanted to make a film about a family, about birds, about teenagers, about the visceral intensity of the relationship with the world, the cruelty and tenderness of that age. 

This estate, Mansouria – does it have a personal dimension? 

I grew up in a Tangier family where provincial bourgeois codes clashed with the passion of life; a “tanjaouia” family, very extravagant and pleasure-seeking yet attached to its traditions, with its raw, highly strung sensuality, but a very worried family in a smiling, refined way, living both in the urgency to change and the fear of collapse. I used to spend the summers in my grandmother’s magnificent, patrician home, a dilapidated pasha’s palace, impossible to upkeep, as if cut off from the world yet right in the middle of the medina. The medina had become impoverished. And so in summer, I secretly hung out with the kids my age, very different from my classmates at school. I used to cross lines, ghettos, but I didn’t put it into words, it wasn’t conscious. I wasn’t allowed to association with the servants. Some of the girls who worked for my family were soulmates – Rhimo, Mina, and so on. I was ten or twelve. I made a point of breaking the rules. All the experiences I shared with these girls were mysterious, enigmatic and intense. 

Lina is witness to the events, taking charge of the film like a coryphaeus in a Greek tragedy, through her voice. How did you devise her character, her flow? 

The character of Lina is quite complex – mute, she scribbles on her skin, almost like scarification, with keywords and questions all over her body. She’s a withdrawn teenager who’s capsizing. She’s overflowing with all these words, too many words, too many stories that she can’t organise or make coherent. She firmly believes that she’ll become a superhero. I wanted Lina to talk like a fourteen-year-old, but also like a kind of extra-lucid clairvoyant, a Scheherazade. I wanted to create a sort of oriental fairytale. Lina, like Badia, the heroine in On the Edge, is a kind of modern-day Madjouba; she represents the holy fool from whose mouth comes the ultimate truth of an era. Like the majdoub, she is at once Pythia, coryphaeus and just another teenager today. At the heart of the mixing was the score for the voiceover: husky Moroccan at machine-gun speed mixed with French, a hard-hitting slam, Lina’s voiceover was meant to derail…It’s a very unique Moroccan, a kind of Babel language used by young Moroccans that combines Moroccan dialect, French and Spanish. It sounds like rap or a musical slam flow. All of contemporary Morocco speaks like this, not just the working classes! It’s a language of the here and now, but one that draws on the oral tradition of yesterday. 

The passion for birds she shares with her father is embodied in a strange black stork, the “Cigogna Nera”. Nature seems to be a real character here, a bulwark against speculation, lies and crime. What role did you want to give it? 

When her grandmother wants to sell, she causes an apocalypse in the area, an area that also belongs to the birds. When the father refuses to sell his stake in the property and says he’s going to donate it, he instils an element of ‘anarchy’ into the family. There’s going to be a revolution on the estate. The forest, mysterious and wild, will shift to a dark and fantastic side, of childhood, folk and mystical tales. I’m intrigued by mystical stories. In Morocco, there are a lot of myths about birds and there’s a lot of symbolism with birds. The white stork is the ultimate symbol of the spirit of the Saints. So of course I used this symbolism, but I also like storks. Especially black storks. 

The camera’s movements, the unstable frame and the jumbled editing all give Birdland a special dynamic. How did you go about this?

The cut had to reflect the dichotomy between the characters’ confinement and nature filmed like a painting. I wanted there to be a counterpoint between the wide shots, the sweeping, composed, powerful shots of nature and the suffocating frenetic energy of the characters – this rhythm could only be embodied in very tight shots that blur the sensation of space itself.  

The mix of genres produces a film that’s both highly personal and political. Was that your intention? 

Yes, it’s the main intention. The family is the primary cell of the city; it’s both womb-like and political. Nature, now more than ever, is both a political topic and a personal one. How can we be more than just spectators, how can we break free from our powerlessness? The film’s heroes are entangled but they extricate themselves from the position of victims. The two girls rebel head-on against the tyrannical power the grandmother wields in the family. They find a way to escape the order and discipline. They won’t be “docile bodies”. The movie also looks at repression, revolt and madness. It tells a story that isn’t just revolutionary, but also the story of two girls who let their spirits soar with the birds just as a terrible storm is brewing. 

Interview by Olivier Pierre


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Technical sheet

France, Morocco / 2023 / 127’

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