“A real sensory overload. You’re in the medina and you’re going down the narrow streets, then the motorbikes – you’re trying to get hit by the motorbikes. There’s tagines smelling from every angle, or a dead animal at the side of you, and a thousand people going through the river of the souks.” Filmmaker and photographer Conor Rollins is conjuring his experiences travelling Morocco last year with complete sensory overload.
The colour of his description of Marrakech before the world went into hiding seems a far cry from our current state of stillness and separation. Yet returning to his native UK, memories of Morocco’s distinctive charm and movement were all the more perceptible in hindsight thanks to the comparison of his quiet London flat.
Beyond the commotion of the souks, Rollins explored remote routes through the Atlas Mountains with local, Mohammed, and witnessed the blue boats of Essaouira and its fish market, untouched by time. Recording on Super 8, Rollins has translated his experiences into an evocative short film titled Till Death Do Us Part. Through grainy footage, moving images and stills of landscapes and individuals are brought to life by a soundtrack created by musician and producer Joshua Ward, who interprets a somewhat darker side to the contrasting visuals behind Conor’s travels.
As outsiders too, we are invited into the paradoxes and peculiarities of the scenes Rollins stumbled across: the brutality of everyday working life against stunning natural backdrops, goggling tourists standing among seas of seasoned locals, and moments of solitude within the chaos of a bustling fishing port. Somewhere within the fragments of still life and the dissolving footage of lucid African landscapes, the film paints a picture of movement, exploration and bustling life that now borders on nostalgia. We premiere the film below alongside an interview with Rollins and photographs from his travels.
Hannah Sargeant: What initially drew you to Morocco, and what were your lasting impressions of the places you visited?
Conor Rollins: I think for me it really is about seeing other cultures that are very contrasting to my own, and seeing how other people live. Going into the mountains and meeting the families – each little village has its own mosque and school. Mohammed was telling me that these are the two things that even the smallest villages all try to have so they stay educated and learn the traditions of the land. It was such a beautiful thing to see. Then also the fish market in Essaouira, the smell is quite overpowering, it’s incredible and gets your senses going again; picking your little fish and going down to the end where there are barbeque set-ups, they cook it up for you and you eat it with all the locals. You kind of take it for granted at the time, but it’s definitely stuck in my memory.
HS: How did you meet Mohammad – can you talk us through that relationship?
CR: Mohammad lived in the suburbs just outside of Marrakech with his wife and three children. He’s a self-made tour guide, and true local knowing everyone we passed by with fond affection. Travelling through the Atlas Mountains and into the Bereberes villages his knowledge of village life, religion, Moroccan history, even down to the varied discolouration of the sedimentary rock forms in the mountains was genuinely fascinating and would answer any questions asked in very good English (even though he wouldn’t admit it). He explained how the Bereberes would make their rugs within their villages and the co-operatives set up to help them sell them.
His greatest concerns were for the tourists who come to Morocco without respect for the locals. Certain areas on the suburbs were being built into resorts with golf courses and giant houses. He described them being unoccupied most of the year and not supporting the local tourism, as they would only head into the medina to look around but return to their clubs and mansions to eat, sleep and play golf and swim.
The mountain pass is very restricted, so apart from Mohammad and locals, the only other way is through expensive SUV tour guides. Passing a convoy of huge SUV vans have never looked more out of place than in these beautiful mountains. As this is another concern of Mohammad’s and others alike. His contact number is +212 666-749833 and I would highly recommend people to contact him if visiting, instead of choosing the chartered tours who don’t support the people and culture.
“[Mohammad’s] greatest concerns were for the tourists who come to Morocco without respect for the locals. Certain areas on the suburbs were being built into resorts with golf courses and giant houses.”
HS: With your position as a tourist documenting another culture, do you think it’s important to position yourself as a fly-on-the-wall observer, or to integrate yourself into the scene?
CR: I go for more of the fly-on-the-wall, I don’t think at many moments anyone knew they were being filmed. It’s always that morality question of should you? And it does linger in your mind. I guess it’s just that quiet observation, and you’re leaving it up to the viewer how they want to interpret it, letting them decide how they want to feel about the subject’s narrative and life without putting an obvious judgement or theme from my perspective.
I guess what you try to give back is a respect for their culture. Going to local sources and talking to the local people, but at the same time, the image I’d like to capture, it’s always a moment when it just feels right and there’s maybe a certain light play, or an angle they’re sat at or a movement. I think if you specifically ask them to be involved it kind of takes away from that, so it’s an impossible thing to get right.
HS: How does that extend to when you are a tourist and the camera isn’t rolling?
CR: I like to mingle, to learn and speak to the locals as much as possible. I think when the camera isn’t rolling it’s even more integrated, trying to be part of their culture and learn about it. I believe the best way to do that is by observing everyday life and the everyday viewpoint, it’s something I’ve always been fascinated with and something I’ve always tried to capture.
HS: Why did you choose to shoot on Super 8? The footage revolves around these psychedelic hues, especially with the overlapping images it feels very dreamlike. Is this something you intentionally wanted to create?
CR: Definitely, one of my favourite photographers is Harry Gruyaert whose images of Morocco have always inspired me, through his incredible use of colour film. He talks of seeing the country as a fusion; the people mingle with the landscape in a harmony of colours. And I believe this could only really be achieved with film and how it plays with the light. He also speaks about it being a place where there are so many things going on its more about attempting to make order and simplicity out of the chaos, which seems to have filtered itself into the shots as well.
Ilyes Griyeb’s book Morocco is another incredible example of film photography and I think in general all my heroes choose to use film. The likes of Agnes Varda, Jonas Mekas, Chris Marker, Abbas Kiarostami, or Aki Kaurismaki who said “Cinema is made from light. I am a filmmaker, not a pixel-maker.” Film has a much greater feeling of nostalgia, with the overlapping images taken from 35mm film photographs I took, I’ve always enjoyed trying to make it feel ‘dreamlike’.
“One of my favourite photographers is Harry Gruyaert whose images of Morocco have always inspired me, through his incredible use of colour film”
HS: You’ve said you search for melancholy and loneliness in the individuals you capture. Do you feel a sense of loneliness as an ‘outsider’ when travelling?
CR: I’m fortunate to have travelled a lot in my life on my own, and that’s probably where it’s originated from – being on my own and that mirrored image. But it’s the thing I probably enjoy most in life, visiting and enjoying new cultures on my own, so I don’t particularly feel loneliness. And maybe it isn’t an accurate representation, because how do I know what they’re feeling? Whenever I’m sat there eating on my own, everyone probably thinks that I’m lonely, but I’m probably just enjoying myself in that quiet contemplation and enjoying the surroundings. It’s probably more to do with that than suggesting or saying how these people are feeling because, truthfully, you don’t know.
HS: What is it about solitary individuals that captures your interest?
CR: I wonder what it is, it’s strange. Genre art – it’s an umbrella term for scenes of everyday life and it’s up to the artist, normally a painter, to decide how they want to interpret it – whether it be real or dramatised or romanticised. I’ve always liked this idea of then taking that into video. I think there’s just something more interesting about someone in a solitary moment, it’s what my eye would catch. I don’t think it answers any questions, I think it maybe gives more questions to the viewer, and I think I just like leaving it slightly more open-ended.
“I think there’s just something more interesting about someone in a solitary moment, it’s what my eye would catch. I don’t think it answers any questions, I think it maybe gives more questions to the viewer, and I think I just like leaving it slightly more open-ended.”
HS: Lastly, can you talk us through what made you chose the accompanying music?
CR: Joshua Ward is the musician. Having previously worked with him I know how talented he is, so I simply asked him if he wanted to create something for it. So the music is all him and he had this to say about it:
“I started with very sparse and open structures, which felt appropriate for what I was seeing in the film. But after watching it lots of times, I felt like I wanted the music to build into something more moving or intense. Lots of the sounds I was using fit into place quite naturally: I was playing around with samples of an old kid’s acoustic guitar I was throwing away which worked as the backbone to a lot of the music.
I loved what Conor had done with the footage; I always find something touching or emotional in his work and, as such, I’m always keen to reflect this in my music as best as I can. In particular with this film it was the colours, the vignettes and the way the lens finds or focuses on a subject. I’m always overjoyed to work with Conor because he actively interacts with, and reacts to, the music I make thoughtfully, which is something I want to get better at myself. So I feel like I’m constantly learning when I collaborate with him.”