The French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, can resonate differently in a Moroccan setting on screen. The most famous, perhaps, is the “Casablanca” version, in which the clientele of Rick’s Café sings it loudly to stifle the voices of the German occupiers.
Then there’s the “Little Birds” version, which is venomously belted at a nightclub crowded by a Moroccan prostitute with golden teeth (Yumna Marwan). This time, it is the turn of the French occupants to squirm in their seats.
The scene perfectly sums up the tensions at the heart of “Little Birds,” a six-part sexually free series that debuts Sunday on Starz. Set in the colonial port city of Tangier in 1955, the show is loosely based on Anaïs Nin’s book of erotic short stories of the same name, which was published posthumously in 1979. Nin, who died two years earlier at the age 73, had written the stories in the 1940s for a male benefactor who paid him a dollar a page and advised him repeatedly, “Focus on sex.” Forget about poetry.
Previous screen adaptations of Nin’s work, such as the films “Henry & June” (1990) and “Delta of Venus” (1995), were made by male directors. “Little Birds” has a mostly female-led creative team, including its creator, Sophia Al-Maria, and series director Stacie Passon – a welcome update on a show that examines sexual desire in all its aspects. shapes.
“There is an openness to experience and an openness to perspective in Nin’s literature,” Al-Maria said. “These things were something I really wanted to infuse into the characters.”
Al-Maria, who grew up commuting between her mother’s hometown in Washington state and her Bedouin father’s native Qatar, said she first read “Little Birds” at the library of the American University in Cairo, when she was 16 years old. first cycle. Al-Maria, now 37, said on a video call last month from London that she appreciated the stories at the time for “peeling away layers of expectation, especially around sexuality “.
But when she revisited the stories years later, she found herself backing down in a way that made her want to turn them around.
“A lot of times the stories are quite racist or they have that kind of really uncomfortable outlook on the inside,” said Al-Maria, who as a visual artist has had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. York, and at Tate Great Britain, London.
“So putting him in a group of characters who each have something to say about that look,” she added, “was an important thing to me.”
None of the original stories of Nin’s “Little Birds” take place in Tangier, although her literary journals reveal that she traveled through Morocco. Al-Maria saw an opportunity to merge two aspects of the author’s life in a way that fundamentally challenged contemporary viewers and the source material.
“I sincerely think that studying post-colonial literature in Cairo during my undergraduate years had a really big influence on how I returned and read European authors,” Al-Maria said. “Looking at Nin again, I kind of regressed back to the library in Cairo at that point, so I think that’s one of the reasons North Africa made sense to me.”
Al-Maria moved to Tangier in 1955 because of its international appeal and because it was a particularly dynamic period politically, just a year before Morocco gained independence from France and the United Kingdom. ‘Spain. “I was interested in all these different characters from different backgrounds who escaped Tangier for different reasons, and their flaws sort of symbolizing their position within the world at the time,” Al-Maria said. .
This TV adaptation, which earned cinematographer Ed Rutherford a BAFTA nomination (it first aired in August in Britain, on Sky Atlantic), recast Nin’s stories into a unique narrative on a Supernatural American heiress (Juno Temple) who arrives in Tangier to marry a gay English aristocrat locked up with money problems (Hugh Skinner). The Moroccan city, which was then an international zone under the joint administration of several European countries, is portrayed as a playground for the bohemian jet-set. Westerners and wealthy Arabs seeking to express their fearless sexuality rub shoulders in the series of impoverished Moroccans impatiently awaiting the return of their sultan.
In a video call, Temple, 31, said she viewed her lead role as Lucy Savage as an amalgamation of several of the characters from Nin’s short stories and Nin herself.
“Whether it’s through the tastes and smells of Morocco, or whether it’s seeing the sexuality of others and their erotic imprint on the planet, or finding a husband and trying to achieve a perfect life, Lucy is constantly looking for things to feed. his hunger, ”Temple said.
Temple, who read “Little Birds” as a teenager (in her case on a transatlantic flight from her hometown of London to Los Angeles), worked closely with Passon, who is American, to make Lucy reflects Nin’s complex relationship with his father. . In an unredacted newspaper titled “Incest,” Nin, who was born to Cuban parents, wrote about an affair with her father, Joaquín Nin, at the age of 30, after two decades of estrangement. In the series, there are hints of a similar relationship between Lucy and her father, a pompous American arms dealer, played by David Costabile.
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Temple said she and Passon spent hours talking about the nature of erotica and how people often confuse “sexy” with “erotic”.
“Sexy is a power that every woman has, but they know what they’re doing, as the erotica takes you by surprise,” Temple said. “So that’s what people are the most nervous about talking about and the most nervous about exploring because it’s taboo.”
Passon, 51, said in a video call that several other directors turned down the opportunity to direct “Little Birds” before accepting the job.
“I see the value of projects that others seem to be running around, and I think Sophia is doing it too,” said Passon, who won multiple awards for her 2013 film “Concussion”. Even Passon, however, was surprised at how fearlessly Temple embraced his role.
“Juno has always boldly pushed for the idea of exploring lust” between Lucy and her father, Passon said. “At first I was really afraid of it, quite frankly. I was like, ‘How do we do this?’ And she said to me, ‘But, it’s Nin.’ “
Nin, however, contains multitudes; Passon noted that it was not always entirely clear when to trust his writings.
“Anaïs Nin had a box of lies,” Passon said. “She literally had to write down her lies and put them in a box so that she could follow them.” His cover-up, Passon added, included having simultaneous husbands on both American coasts.
Nin wrote her erotic short stories “for a male gaze,” noted Al-Maria – another feature of the writing she found problematic. Nonetheless, Al-Maria suggested that the stories remained relevant from a feminist perspective because of their sentimental intensity.
“There is a range of protagonists in her short stories,” she said, “but the central guideline, I think, is that there is always a real emotional depth.”
Al-Maria was moved to consider her own life when she created the character of Adham (Raphael Acloque), a wealthy gay Egyptian who races around Tangier in his convertible sports car. “Adham is an absolute mix of people I know and love,” Al-Maria said. “It’s also named after a friend.
She notes that one of her favorite scenes on the show happens when Adham is in bed with a connection. This man “basically calls her to play that role with his fancy car and fancy costumes, going to these fancy restaurants,” Al-Maria said. “It’s a conversation I have heard so many times and experienced myself.”
Acloque, 36, who has dual French and Algerian nationality, said on a video call that it had not been an easy role for him to seek out.
“When it comes to a 1950s Arab who was gay and came to Tangier to have this life, I didn’t find anything historically useful,” he said. The role clicked for Acloque on a personal level during a scene in which his character meets two veiled women living alone because their husbands had been taken for questioning by colonial authorities. He never came back.
“My grandfather was sometimes taken away by the French police or the French army just to be asked questions and disappeared for three days,” Acloque said. “My mother was 10 when Algeria became independent, and she said to herself: ‘I would never know if he would come back or not.'”
Adham’s meeting with the two women leads him to realize that even if he tries to behave like a white man, he will still be an Arab in their eyes. His personal awakening is emblematic of a historic moment when Pan-Arabism swept across North Africa, one of the many historical details of “Little Birds” whose continued resonance gives the series power.
“Let’s say for most of Adham’s life he’s been a horse trying to pretend he’s a zebra,” Acloque said. “But you can paint yourself as much as you want – at the end of the day, you are who you are.”