A Different Vision

Documentary filmmaker Michelle Medina ’05’s dramatic childhood will one day make a great film, but for now she’s focusing her lens on the stories that bring her beloved adopted country of Morocco to life

by Christina Barber-Just

If documentary filmmaker Michelle Medina ’05 were to pitch her own life story, it might go something like this: “Teenage girl escapes from a sexually abusive religious cult and finds academic success at Smith College only to move to Morocco, where she falls in and out of love with a North African rap star and eventually finds happiness as a single mother in a country where sex out of wedlock is illegal.”

Medina, who has lived in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, since 2005, may one day put her own story on the big screen. But for now, she has her hands full promoting—and collecting awards for—her latest project, a documentary exploring the stubborn hopes that survive life in a Moroccan slum. In All I Wanna Do, she follows an impoverished Moroccan parking guard and his disabled teenage son as they chase their dream of forming a rap group and making an album. The film has been lauded on the festival circuit—one programming director called it “fresh and original,” “charming, inspiring, and entertaining”—and has garnered awards for best documentary, best director, and more.Michelle Medina

“This is a film in which it becomes very clear to me that this is a documentary filmmaker who has moved to the next step. You can see that she has developed as a filmmaker,” says Alexandra Keller, associate professor of film studies at Smith and director of the college’s film-studies program.

Keller was one of Medina’s thesis advisers at Smith. She remembers Medina’s thesis, “Our Bodies Are Covered in Stories: Narrating Multiple Identities in Contemporary Moroccan Women’s Film,” in part because Keller thought it had all the makings of a book on Moroccan cinema that she might one day assign to her film-studies students. “But what I think is really wonderful is that I was wrong,” she says. “In fact, Michelle is making the films.”

To be free
Medina came to Smith after a bruising childhood that’s only alluded to in her Website bio, which says she was born in the United States and raised in Japan under “unconventional circumstances” that have influenced her vision of home, religion, and identity. What the bio doesn’t say is that her parents were members of a cult, now named the Family International, or TFI. Formed in the late 1960s as the Children of God, TFI gained infamy for practices such as “Flirty Fishing”—prostitution by female members for the purpose of proselytizing—and has faced persistent allegations of child sexual abuse, among other offenses.

Children were not allowed to go to school, Medina says, but instead were forced to work up to fourteen hours a day, usually by selling things, busking, or simply begging for money. They also attended a daily “indoctrination” class where they studied the cult’s own literature, which was thick with anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and pedophilia—all justified by divine sanction. “A day in my life as a child was fixed on a tight schedule,” Medina recalls. “There was nothing that you could do by yourself and no time to think about anything. You were always monitored and working constantly.”

Medina often dreamed of escaping. “Ever since I can remember, I never believed in this religion,” she says. “I resisted in my quiet way and told myself as I lay in bed that someday I was going to be big enough to leave.” When Medina was 10, her family’s TFI commune returned to the States from Japan. She left the cult at 16 and legally emancipated herself from her parents the following year. Today she has a close relationship with her brother and five sisters, all of whom have also left the cult. She loves her mother—now “a very scared and broken woman,” Medina says—but they don’t have much contact. Her father died in 2004.

Michelle Medina at SmithOne of Medina’s sisters, who asked not to be named, describes Michelle as being “very resistant to the environment she grew up in.” Vocal, opinionated, and sure of herself, the young Medina didn’t back down, her sister said—even when the siblings’ father said misogynistic things. “Michelle was not so marred by the things that had been forced on us that she would accept that kind of disrespect,” her sister said.

Medina’s high school credits came from independent studies; on her own, she bartered a living situation by volunteering at a local NOW chapter. “That’s when I learned how capable I was,” she says. Having been brought up around dominant men and traumatized women, Medina wanted to attend a women’s college, she says, in order to be surrounded by “a lot of brilliant women for a change.” She chose Smith, majoring in Afro-American studies with a minor in religion and a passion for film. Naturally photogenic, she was often cast as an actress in other students’ films. But when she got behind the camera herself during a hands-on production course at the college, she was excited to discover she had something to say as a filmmaker.

A talk by a visiting professor from Morocco’s capital city of Rabat changed the course of Medina’s life. As the professor described it, Morocco was a place where people clash and connect with one another in a way that Westerners don’t or can’t. “It’s a bit messy, the way I am a bit messy,” Medina says, “and it’s a country figuring itself out, as I am as well.” She spent part of her junior year there, living with Moroccan families, traveling all over the country, learning Arabic, and doing an independent study on Moroccan women filmmakers. When she returned to Smith, she says, it was with “wider eyes and a different vision.”

The experience stood in stark contrast to paid positions Medina had had at JPMorgan Chase and AOL Time Warner during the summers after her first and second years of college. She made good money, she says, but left feeling empty and disconnected, “like a very successful nobody.” Morocco, on the other hand, felt like home.

Music of life
Medina’s Smith thesis explored the topic of identity in Moroccan women’s cinematic narratives. After graduation, a Fulbright grant allowed her to return to Morocco to augment her academic research and make her first film, Portrait of Khmissa: Little Creations, Sucar & Melha, Water, Bread, a series of short documentaries about Moroccan women. The grant ran out before the film was finished, so Medina decided to stay in the country and complete the project on her own. It wasn’t the only thing keeping her there, however. She had fallen in love with a local rapper, David (Hoofer) Benezra.

Benezra, whose rap groups are Bizz2Risk and Ghost Project, is well known in Casablanca. He and Medina never married and have since split up, but he left her with two legacies: a daughter, Shiyara, now 4, and the idea for her current film. At the time of their relationship Benezra was living in a Casablanca neighborhood popular with rappers, and whenever Medina visited she would see a man named Simohamed Rouguiyag working at his job as a parking guard. Moroccans who keep an eye on parked cars for a living are “one of the lowest forms of moneymakers and the most vulnerable subset of the class structure here,” Medina says.

Despite his poverty, Rouguiyag, 48, loved rap music and had a reputation for writing rhymes. His 17-year-old son, Ayoub, who was born with only one leg, shared his obsession. Ayoub and his father were natural performers. In fact, Ayoub had fantasies of Hollywood after earning bit parts as an amputee in Charlie Wilson’s War, Spy Game, and other big-budget movies filmed in Morocco. Medina knew she’d found the perfect documentary subjects in the pair.

As Medina writes in the film’s liner notes, All I Wanna Do was “inspired out of curiosity to know the inner lives, dreams, and stories of the men we see in passing on the street but don’t really ever get to know.” In the documentary Rouguiyag writes lyrics about his country, his mother, alcohol abuse, and his violent father; Ayoub sings. With a little help from the trilingual Medina (English, French, Moroccan Arabic), who persuades beat makers from the United States, France, and Morocco to supply music for a studio session she’s arranged, father and son record an album—a wish come true. “It’s happiness without limit,” Rouguiyag says on camera.

Medina hopes to use the momentum generated by the success of All I Wanna Do to get two other projects off the ground. One, a feature-length documentary tentatively titled The Last 2,000, is about the rapidly disappearing Jewish community in Morocco. The other, a short film called To Be a Teenage Girl in Casablanca, follows a group of artistic young women engaged in blogging, fashion design, and photography.

Tales to tell
Medina and her daughter live in an apartment in the center of Casablanca just big enough for the two of them. Medina’s income is a fraction of what it would be in the States, but it meets the modest needs of her small family. Morocco’s high divorce rate means Medina doesn’t stand out as a single mother, and while her status as an unwed woman has never cost her a job or caused cultural problems, she says, it did make the task of renting an apartment more difficult than if she’d been married. “It’s not just anyone who will rent to a woman,” she says. “A woman must come with a man, and if she doesn’t, and she’s under 30, well, that’s not always easy.”

Friends ask Medina how she can live in a country where until recently women were jailed, or even stoned, for having a baby out of wedlock. She bristles at the question because she thinks Western women have been duped. “We look over at women in this region of the world and feel better about ourselves even as we continue being disrespected and distracted at all levels of our society,” she says. “Moroccan women know they have a long way to go. Western women don’t seem to know this. There is sexism here, but at least it’s staring at you in the face. And women, when they are disrespected, stand up for themselves—even on the street.”

In Morocco, Medina has found the kind of home that eluded her elsewhere. “There’s a part of me that is seeking roots,” she says, “and I have found some roots here. Even though it’s not my country by passport, it’s not my country by birth, I really have adopted this country. I can’t quite explain it, but I am connected to this place,” she says.  “America is for me sometimes the foreign country.”

Medina plans to stay in her adopted country for as long as it feeds her creativity. “When I decide to leave Morocco is when I have no interest in making any more films here,” she says. But, she adds, “Once I finish something there’s something else I want to do, because there’s just so many stories to be told. It’s like an empty slate.”

Christina Barber-Just is a writer in western Massachusetts. This article was adapted for the Summer 2012 SAQ after it first appeared on the AASC website (“It’s All About the Beat”) in December 2011