On Monday’s front page of The New York Times is a still from video journalist Almudena Toral’s Morocco’s Mule Ladies. The film, just shy of six minutes long (which you can watch on the Times website), documents the way women in Morocco make their living smuggling Spanish goods from Melilla. This comes only four days after Yto Barrada’s visit to the Walker, during which she screened her short silent film called The Smuggler (2006) as part of the Expanding the Frame series. The film shows one of these “mule ladies” demonstrating how she belts on blankets and fabrics to her person. Under the circumstances, The Smuggler becomes a peculiar case study for Morocco’s Mule Ladies.
In Barrada’s film, the woman speaks casually to the camera standing before a black backdrop – shot inside the Cinema Rif during its renovation. Layered on a chair beside her are blankets which she comically fastens to her body. Her granddaughter appears on screen twice to help, smiling at the camera as her grandmother bounces up and down, trying to jostle the load into place. In eleven minutes she dons and removes the blankets.
Striking a deep contrast to Barrada’s film is Toral’s Mule Ladies, which not only documents what it’s like to be at the border crossing between Morocco and Melilla, but how the atmosphere there has become violent in recent months. There are people running, screaming, and even bleeding on camera.
Eight years separate the making of these films, and it’s obvious that the conditions of smuggling jobs have worsened in that time, but the disparity between these two elucidations is still baffling. Seeing these films side by side leads one to question the polar reactions they incite. Despite their differences though, the films do share in common — notwithstanding degrees of manipulation — a desire to show truth.
At first glance, Barrada’s film seems to have been intended as an objective observation of a woman and her life, but by dodging every shred of environment from the image, Barrada makes a comedy of her protagonist’s story. Meanwhile, with precise editing, an emotional score and journalistic shots from the hip, Toral manages to make a compellingly sympathetic case for women whose smuggling has become a primary means of survival. In the end, it’s their means of manipulation that subvert their meaning.
Yet, there is some beauty in how, rather than contradicting each other, these two films can suppose emotionally-opposite examples of a total experience — of a lifestyle and its people.