Hope Amidst Suffering: The Ethics of Images in Storytelling

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How do you acknowledge the truth of a story and portray suffering accurately, without making a story too unbearably gruesome or full of despair?  This question of the ethics of images is one inherent in the process of telling someone else’s story, and it has continuously plagued filmmakers working to connect and educate audiences to difficult realities and social issues.  Recently, I had the pleasure of watching Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, a Moroccan film directed by Nabil Ayouch, which speaks to this question of finding a balance between how much is too much for an audience to see and how much is necessary to tell an accurate story.  The film, which revolves around the lives of Moroccan street children, touches on a number of heart-wrenching issues, including homelessness, poverty, child sexual abuse, gangs, violence, prostitution, drugs, and even death.

Dib, the leader of the gang of street children (center), is a vicious character, but also another victim in the cycle of poverty and abuse.

While many scenes definitely saddle that line, one thing that keeps the film as a whole from totally crossing over into unbearable territory, and a testament to Ayouch’s skill and vision as a director, is the way in which it interweaves fantasy with reality.  Kwita, a young boy trying to find a way to bury his friend, Ali, after a gang kills him, starts to imagine a boat taking him and a girl away to live happily ever after on an island with two suns.  This dream, which was originally Ali Zaoua’s, becomes Kwita’s as well, and as we watch the film, billboards, walls, and pictures transform before our eyes into squiggly lines and cartoons.  This fantasy not only gives us hope that one day Kwita will have their dream of escaping life on the mean streets of Casablanca become a reality, it also gives us a break from the very real images of horror speckled throughout the film.  Indeed, perhaps the most important feature that ensures this movie ultimately becomes one of hope, is how it intertwines fantasy and reality in its ending.  In the last scene, the gang looks on as Kwita, Omar, and Boubker, along with Ali’s mother and a kind elderly fisherman, sail off to bury Ali at sea.  As the boat sails away, the film is again transformed into fantasy, and then, it finally settles somewhere in between, the last shot two suns shining over a very real shot of Casablanca, paying tribute to human resilience and the importance of following your dreams.

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