An interview with Hassan Hajjaj

by Elena Scarpa
June 23, 2015
Elena Scarpa
Hajjaj Hassan

Hassan Hajjaj‘s (b.1961, Larache) film ‘Karima: A day in the life of a Henna Girl‘ premiered earlier this year at LACMA in Los Angeles and was shown last week ad part of Art Basel‘s film program.
The documentary, shot in Marrakesh, follows the daily life and adventures of Karima, who the Hajjaj portraits as a wife, a mother, an artist and a graduate from Jamaa Fena (the university of street life).

My Art Guides sat down with him during the fair to discuss this and his upcoming projects.

Elena Scarpa: I was wondering how the idea of shooting Karima was born since film it’s not your usual medium.

Hassan Hajjaj: The idea came from taking the character from my stills, Karima, who I have been taking pictures of for about sixteen years on and off and wanting to show her personality. I knew her, her strenght and photography didn’t say so much about her, for me it was about telling a story, me stepping aside and talking about her, not about me.
I wanted to show why I am attracted to her energy.

ES: How long did it take to complete the whole project?

HH: I got the idea a couple of years before shooting and then there was a bit of preparation in terms of decisions to be made, the location of the set and other things. The filming itself took about a day and a half.
We had five different cameras that I borrowed from friends and that was it.

ES: Was it difficult for Karima to be the main character of the film, given that she’s not a professional actress?

HH: If you look at what she does, she’s there everyday doing Henna, she’ like an actress. She meets so many people everyday in the square so for her it was really easy. I was a bit worried that she would be to aware of the camera but she wasn’t.
I tried to use a very small team, it was a small production because if you have a big camera, a big microphone and equipment people are going to be looking, but the way we made it it blended with all the people that are in the square everyday taking pictures.

ES: What about the reaction of the public when you premiered at LACMA?

HH: We had about 60/70% of the cinema full and the people that came up to me in the end they loved it.
There was a journalist who wrote a really nice piece and she said there was a couple sitting next to her that after a few minutes went “What the f**k is this?!” and left the room. But it’s fine, for me it’s mad piece of work and it’s not for everybody, it’s a slow film.
The people that seem to like it are the people I am getting on with. I’ve had some serious people that really loved it, actually a producer helped me put it in the Toronto Film Festival. It’s not going to be mainstream, of course if it goes there I can’t control it but it wasn’t the plan.

ES: Are you going to make more films now or are you going to focus again on photography?

HH: I have a film, My Rock Stars, showing at the Newark Museum until august. I’m also in the middle of editing something I shot two or three years ago so I’ll try to finish that this year and then I have also another series about the musicians but I need to raise some money to edit it. At the moment I’ll try to finish what I’ve shot, most of the times films lay on shelves, it takes a lot of time to actually finish them.
It would be nice to continue this series and maybe take another character from Karima and work with that. I have somebody in mind already but it needs money, we’ll see if there are positive reactions about Karima that push someone to believe in the next one.
Most people know my Morocco inspired works but we’ve opened to a new audience with My Rock Stars and it’s nice to see new followers of my works.
Film has made it easier for people to understand the spirit of my work.

ES: Actually the photos are really powerful but when you see the film you get a better idea about the people.

HH: That’s also why I did it, it’s made for people that follow my work and can recognize the people immediately.

ES: I also wanted to ask you something technical, since you also make clothes, where the characters wearing things you made for them?

HH: I mixed it up a it. Karima wore her own clothes, which I knew she owned but she was also wearing my socks and my shoes. Her auntie wore her own stuff, the little girl also wore her stuff. In the night scene it was again a bit of mix up of people wearing my stuff and their own. I would say 80% is their stuff. It’s their style and not a production choice.

ES: Where are you based now, Morocco or London? And could you tell us a bit more about your upcoming projects?

HH: Between both, half of the year in London and half in Morocco. My projects are shot around the world so I have been traveling a lot in the last two years.
Next year I will have a solo show at the Third Line in Dubai and then I’m also having one in New York.
At the end of 2016, maybe 2017 I’m having another solo show which will be about Karina, basically all the photos I took while we were shooting the film and all the photos I took of her from 1999.
As far as the film is concerned, I am not a technically prepared in film making and I am hoping to show it somewhere else, I have to wait for reactions, to see how many people like it.
I’m happy with it and it’s going to have its journey which I will not be able to control. I am trying to keep it in galleries and museums, I will test the reaction at the Toronto Film Festival and we’ll see how it goes.

It’s been a hard journey between photography, film and also design but I’m glad people respect it.
It can be tricky in the art world because people can be snobbish and don’t really want you to be working on so many different things.
I’ve got nothing to loose as I came into the art world with nothing to loose, I actually wanted to entertain myself and as long as I am happy with my work and if I can make it positive for people that follow me it’s fine.
I see people following my work online and that kind of shocked me and amazed me, I need to come to terms with this. The younger generation from the Arab World, especially women, have been appreciating my work and that makes me happy. It’s a bit different from America where I have a new audience that doesn’t know my work, so they see it differently.
The internet is also a really powerful tool to create audience, something shared here in Art Basel can have 300.000 likes and it’s crazy.

ES: The last thing I’d like to ask you is what was your favorite part of the whole process of shooting the film.

HH: It’s a tough one! The scenes at night time and morning time where great to shoot and also some of the scenes in the square.
For me there where a lot of golden moments, even when Karina was getting changed because we had to concentrate on that scene.
In general I think the scenes at night time are really stuck in my mind. It’s something I wanted to do for years and had offered it to someone else for a music video about ten years ago but they didn’t listen to me, now I am glad I kept it for this documentary.
For me the love of the people was great, everyone that came to help because it was a very small production, just four of us plus the characters.
It will be quite difficult to recreate the atmosphere again.

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