Interview: Faouzi Bensaïdi, “Death For Sale”

Posted by Tiffany Vazquez on 4.10.2013

Faouzi Bensaïdi's Death For Sale was Morocco's official selection for the 2012 Academy Awards, and was also a highlight of the 20th New York African Film Festival.  The film centers on three friends whose desperation to achieve financial success provokes them to rob the largest jewelry store in their hometown of Tetouan, Morocco.  Here's what Bensaïdi had to say about his harrowing film:

How did you decide on the title for the film? Does the original title in Arabic translate directly to Death for Sale?
Yes, it translates directly from Arabic. I began to write the script and it became clear that the film would deal with death somehow. It’s about violence, and living with others as well as ourselves. A lot of contact and communication we have happens through violence, and the ultimate level of death is dealing with debt. Malik decides to rob the jewelry store, and gives his life to this idea of violence. 

There are some very interesting shots: some are beautifully framed, others are beautifully tracked/panned, and others are off-kilter. They all give a distinct look to the film. Could you talk about your work with cinematographer Marc-André Batigne?
We worked together on my first short film, and I did other projects with other cinematographers, but we kept a good relationship; both a professional and personal friendship.  He understands the mood I am searching for.  Frame, image, and movement are important.  All my films show the importance of what a camera can do.  The movement of a camera is like poetry.

On a related note, some of the background views in scenes had the most scenic, gorgeous, mountainous views. How much work went into location scouting?
I have a close relationship with this town (Tetouan). My family moved there when I was three years old, and it was a big deal. The image of the town is a strong memory that stayed in my mind and emotions, even though we only lived there for one year. I was writing the script [for Death for Sale] that took place in Tangiers. When I returned to Tetouan in 2005 on holiday, something happened while looking at the beaches, streets, and town. So I changed the script and based it all around Tetouan. I loved the mountains, architecture, and sky.

Your cast was fantastic at portraying the dire circumstances in the film.  Were they a mix of professional and non-professional actors?
Most of the principal characters are professional actors.  My first idea about the cast was that we shouldn’t find one great actor at a time, but instead focus on finding three great actors—three guys who are great together as a trio. I’m so happy with their work.

Is there any particular inspiration for Inspector Dabbaz? He must have been a fun character to play.
When I wrote the script, I didn’t know I would be playing Dabbaz. Later, that became a challenge. I never played a character like Dabbaz before. It was more complex because he was corrupt, and he was a pervert. But it worked out well.

Did you know anyone like Malik, Allal, and Soufiane growing up? Are they inspired by actual people?
Yes, the three characters are inspired by young men I knew when I was a teenager. I was a good student, and overall a good kid, so my parents gave me social liberties. I was allowed to go out in the neighborhood at night, and I met these guys—they weren’t model citizens. They didn’t kill anyone, but they did jail time and committed small crimes. I was impressed and touched by their ability to be violent but also fragile. There was affection, love, and respect between us. They came to think of me as a little brother, and they confessed many things to me. I think, at 17 or 18, I wrote notes about this story that had to do with three friends and a robbery.

Death For Sale is beautifully tragic. Was this your intention from the beginning?
No. I had a lot of notes and a lot of ideas, and I began to be inspired by other films and experiences, like the trial of friendship and tragedy. Malik sells his friendship.  I wanted to film a big friendship that became a big tragedy.

Death For Sale takes on neo-noir elements in certain plot points, as well as stylistically. Malik can be considered an anti-hero and Dounia the femme fatale. Are you influenced by any particular noir films?
American cinema was influential to me. I would go to the movies three times a day when I was young. I’ve often done experimental films that mixed genre—film noir, musical, comedy, burlesque, and even silent film elements. Then I decided to make something classical. This time I wanted Malik to get Dounia out of jail, and decide on committing one last task to get money and escape. But when you take the instances of these classical genre films and set them in different locations and sociopolitical realities, something happens. This was an homage to a part of cinema without directly copying film noir, and I was happy and lucky with the results.

Are you working on any new projects? 
Yes, I am working on several projects. My short from 1999 (The Wall) had some success from Cannes Film Festival, so I had the idea to develop it into a feature length film.  I’m also working on a story of a couple in Casablanca.  It’s about separation in society, and it’s different than what you would expect.

You’re a busy man!
Well, you never know which projects will make it. Truffaut always said it’s better to work on multiple projects because of the nature of this industry!

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