Where performance replaced piracy: Pirates of Salé

The documentary Pirates of Salé has screened in more than 20 countries from Abu Dhabi to Edinburgh, and won awards in Rome, Lisbon and Tetouan. Ahead of its first screening in London as part of DocDays at Curzon Soho, Sean Parnell reviews the film.

Cirque Shems’y performer Hajar

Salé, Morocco: a place where performance has replaced piracy. For those unacquainted with the history of Mediterranean piracy, the connection between the pirates of the region's past and the present performers of Salé’s Cirque Shems’y may seem tenuous. The title of Merieme Addou and Rosa Rogers' film derives its meaning from a specific moment in Morocco’s history. Nevertheless, the link made between the piracy of Salé’s past and its present home to a transnational circus is unmistakable.

The Barbary Pirates, operating out of Salé, thrived between the 16th-19th century and were comprised mostly of the local Berber population. However, among their ranks were also Western European individuals, who over time established pirates' alliances between Europe and North Africa. This moment of cross-cultural encounter in this region is highly relevant to the narrative of The Pirates of Salé, which presents us with a European, Alain Laeron, who runs a circus and training programme with fellow Frenchman Guillaume Bertrand and Moroccan performance director Jawad Touinssi, supported by the local and national Moroccan community. Whilst many aspects of the dominance exerted upon North Africa by the historic European colonial influence have had a profoundly altering (if not devastatingly negative) impact, colonial rule has also undoubtedly fostered cultural diversification and exchange in ways that can also be perceived as positive.

Cirque Shems’y performance director Jawad Tounissi

This is an important topic explored within this documentary, which focuses on the circus and its evolution throughout the course of a year, and specifically four young aspiring performers, but which also examines the influence of the circus and its administration and development within the Salé community. Abdelali, Ghizlane, Hajar and Imed share the spotlight as the main focus of the documentary. All four performers come from unprivileged backgrounds, and join Laeron’s circus school with hopes of becoming renowned circus artists. An examination of their development within the circus tent is accompanied by insight into their lives at home with their families, and the film doesn't shy away from examining their socio-political opinions -  most notably by focussing on Imed, a particularly politicised member of the circus troupe, and his views surrounding social tensions within the country, and Ghizlane, who ponders and brings into discussion women's rights in Morocco. While of course these four characters are representative of a relatively subsection of society, the film strives to open up its view on broader social issues.

Cirque Shems’y performer Imed

The parallel between the school's multiculturalism and the historic Berber/European connection that is developed throughout the film gives a foundation to the other intimate insights that emerge as the four main characters’ progression within the circus and their lives outside of it evolve. Socio-political issues such as the disadvantaged youth of Morocco, and the poverty and anti-social behaviour that has gripped Salé in recent times are two themes that Addou and Rogers observe. Pirates of Salé demonstrates the positive influence and collaboration that Cirque Shems’y has within this community, and how through its presence, the circus encourages and enables the local population to rediscover and nurture their own culture, history and identity.

Cirque Shems’y  performer Ghizlane

Cirque Shems’y performer Ghizlane

The film’s structure, which focuses on the changing seasons, provides a sense of time passing, as well as the development of the four performers within the circus and a progression in their own lives. As the film concludes, it becomes obvious that the impact of the circus on these four people is significant, and more importantly, the impact of the circus on the community is enduringly positive. In a final scene, as the performer's families come together to witness the hard work and training that has been undertaken by their sons, daughters, relatives and neighbours; it’s clear that the only thing these new pirates have hijacked is the imaginations and hearts of Salé, and through this heartwarming film, those of the audience as well.

[Sean Parnell, Curzon Aldgate]

Pirates of Salé screens FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY as part of Curzon Soho's DocDays (our programming strand of socio-political documentaries) on Wednesday 17th May at 18:30. The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring: Rosa Rogers, Director of Pirates of Salé; Saeida Rouass, writer and North Africa Director of Families Against Terrorism and Extremism (FATE); and Emily McLaughlin, Head of New Work, National Theatre.