'Sand and Fire', by Souheïl ben Barka, is an amazing product: a Moroccan-Italian high-budget film (the largest investment in the history of Moroccan cinema). It tells the story of a Catalan, an officer of the Spanish Crown, Domingo Badia, who was tasked, around 1800, with gaining the trust of the Anglophile Sultan Moulay Slimane, under the pseudonym Ali Bey, in order to promote, underhand, a revolt of the tribes, and to replace him with a sultan compliant with Spanish interests. Why this interest in a Catalan unknown beyond Catalonia (he has a street in Barcelona under his alias Ali Bey)? Behind the big show film, we can see a propaganda enterprise, even if it may seem nebulous at first.
Domingo Badia has many assets in his favour: this spy was also a scholar, mathematician and astronomer, and a polyglot, speaking in particular Arabic, who easily adopted the Arab-Muslim costume and manners. One thinks, of course, of a Catalan-Moroccan Lawrence of Arabia who pushed oriental mimicry even further since, under the name of Ali Bey el-Abbassi, he pretended to be an exiled Syrian prince. He is also played by a Spanish actor (Rodolfo Sancho) who, with the help of sumptuous costumes, gives him all the presence he needs. Badia thus went through twenty years of the most turbulent history, from 1798 to 1818 (one can even attend the Second of Mayo, immortalized in Goya's painting), still possessed by the dream of becoming sultan and even caliph.
To this epic thread is added an aspect of romance: in London, he fell in love with Lady Hester Stanhope, Pitt's niece, who was also in the grip of an orientalizing dream, that of becoming Queen of Palmyra.
All this sounds very strange, but, as insisted in the credits, all this is “based on a true story”. Despite this, this film could still be a meaningless peplum today. But why would Mohamed VI also have invested so much himself in the film (in addition to the funding provided by Morocco, the King made his army available to the director: he needed 30,000 extras, especially for fantasias and battles); moreover, Souheil ben Barka does not hide from being a "friend of the King": "We are lucky to have a King who is very interested in cinema and all the arts, even more than his father," he said in an interview for Africultures.
The first answer can be found in the film's portrait of Sultan Moulay Slimane: he is a wise man, surrounded by the veneration of his relatives and subjects, benevolent, and a fine politician at the same time; he welcomes Ali Bey as a son, but when it is pointed out to him that nothing is known about him, he replies that the mysterious prince is under surveillance, and that he counts on using him to Morocco's advantage. This is where the film comes up against a contradiction: it asks for our empathy both for the Sultan and for the one who uses his trust to try to overthrow him. But the film does not focus on analysing the heroes' personalities, and it simply combines the two characters in a single modernising programme: the fight against superstitions, thanks to European science (once again the trick with the eclipse, already foreseen by Tintin!), the suppression of slavery and the recognition of women's equality... At this stage, the film has already lost a lot of its credibility: it smells too much like the eternal "ode to tolerance" that media credit all films that adopt the European point of view. Especially since at the same time (Moroccan nationalism obliges?), the Sultan does not make a mystery of his project of Reconquest of Andalusia (for whom does the film proceed? Would it prove the anti-Muslim right-wing propaganda, right?).
But the film does not only give an idealized image (by Slimane interposed) of Mohamed VI and his father (the sinister Hassan II). Because it is built on two poles: tolerant Islam in Morocco, fanatical Islam in Syria. It is therefore time to talk about Lady Stanhope, alias Meleki, who converted to Islam and carved out a small kingdom in Syria, and became the leader of a Druze tribe, around Palmyra: she breathes only punishment and massacres, and incites her warriors to exterminate the neighbouring miscreant tribes, and to bring her as many chopped heads as possible. The allusion to Daesh seems obvious, Lady Stanhope appears as a jihadist Pasionaria. But is this the true target?
Lady Stanhope and her bloodthirsty warriors are the sole representatives of the Syrian pole: one has the impression that Syria at the beginning of the 19th century is only a collection of barbaric tribes (like the Cambodia of Apocalypse now, where the white man Kurtz had no difficulty either in being obeyed and worshipped by a tribe). In addition, the Druze, to whom she has settled, are a Shia branch of Islam, like the Alawites, to which Bashar al-Assad belongs, being now supported by the Syrian Druze.
Lady Stanhope thus seems to prefigure with her excesses the caricature given by the media, of Bashar as "the-bloody-tyrant-who-gasses-and-bombs-his-people". Sand and Fire came out at the same time as Sama, an English pseudo-documentary on the battle of Aleppo, presented as a wanton massacre perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad, while the east of the city was occupied by jihadists who had taken the population hostage (preventing it from using the humanitarian corridors opened by the Syrian-Russian troops); but the one-track thinking pretends to forget that Syria is still in a state of war, and that fighting is not a bloody act on its part, but the only way to free itself. Thus, Sand and Fire could well contribute to Western propaganda against Syria.