“Night Walk” is a crime drama that holds the distinction of being the first Moroccan film in history to attain Hollywood distribution. This gritty crime-drama focuses on an American who finds himself incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Whilst wallowing in prison, he finds a safe haven with a group of Muslim prisoners who the the rest of the facility shuns. A West-meets-East feature, the movie has a lot to say about the human condition and the bonds that we form.
Moroccan-born filmmaker Aziz Tazi was featured in the 2016 Forbes Africa ”30 Under 30” list of notable entrepreneurs, leaders, and industry figures. Hid short film titled “Imago” won the 2013 Arab Film Festival and his 2014 documentary “Arab Stories” aired on PBS stations.
Aziz recently granted an exclusive interview where he discussed “Night Walk” which he wrote and directed.
Meagan Meehan (MM): When did you first realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker and how did you break into the industry?
Aziz Tazi (AT): From a young age, I have always loved telling stories. My best friend and I would make videos every week from when we were 12 until I left at age 18. However, bowing to social pressure, I initially moved to France to attend an engineering school, but my heart was always in film and TV. Driven by a burning passion for writing, I sought out an opportunity to work with three-time César-winning producer Denis Freyd, who I interned for on the set of the French TV show Les Cinq Parties du Monde. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to work in film.
Once I completed my Master’s in Paris then at UC Berkeley, I moved to Los Angeles to follow my filmmaking dreams. I prayed I wasn’t making a terrible mistake as I set aside my prestigious degrees and a stable lucrative career path to pursue my true passion. I worked for the Arab Film Festival as a festival manager. I also pitched my stories everywhere I could, to get the film fully funded but unsuccessfully. Eventually, I used my meager savings and some money raised from friends and family to hire actors and a crew, and filmed and edited a proof-of-concept. I used that to raise more investor money. Along the way, I was scammed and also wasted a lot of time with dishonest people.
Finally, in 2019, I completed Night Walk, my first feature film, which is my proudest accomplishment. It was shot on two continents and stars a slew of Hollywood heavyweights such as Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning actor Mickey Rourke, Oscar nominee Eric Roberts, French rap legend La Fouine in his first English-speaking role, as well as Sean Stone, Sarah Alami, Louis Mandylor, Richard Tyson, and Patrick Kilpatrick.
MM: What inspires your films and how did you achieve success?
AT: When I moved to Los Angeles, I had the conviction that I would one day be able to tell powerful stories based on my heritage and experiences. That is what inspired the story of “Night Walk.” Through my storytelling, I want to urge people to reflect on their prejudices by showcasing the true diversity of our misunderstood community. My goal is to change the narrative around the Arab and Muslim communities in the West. Today, racism, prejudice, and unconscious bias are still barriers to the American dream for minorities and people of color. These issues are currently top of mind with the highly-publicized violence against African-Americans and Asians in recent months. It is my goal as an Arab filmmaker to help shatter stereotypes, creating more opportunities for BIPOC along the way.
I think achieving success is a big word. I am just proud that Night Walk gets to be seen by a worldwide audience. As a storyteller, we work so hard to try to expose others to our thoughts and ideas. The fact that my film had its world premiere at Moscow International Film Festival and won two awards at Prague Film Festival (“Best Actor” for Mickey Rourke and “Best Screenplay” for myself) fills me with joy. Night Walk was also picked up by Lionsgate for a North American release, making it the first Moroccan film in history to get Hollywood distribution.
MM: How did you get in contact with the American movie and television industry?
AT: At 21, I moved to UC Berkeley to pursue a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering at UC Berkeley but I immediately started building my network and connecting with people from the industry. I volunteered for the Arab Film Festival and worked my way up from being a theater usher to an intern to eventually managing the LA edition of the festival. During that time, I also produced shorts and connected with film professionals at parties or networking events. Eventually, it was at a party at a music composer’s house that I met the person who then became the producer of my first feature film. You never know where or when your big break is coming!
MM: What made you decide to create a documentary for PBS?
AT: This was while I worked for the Arab Film Festival and I met a lot of prominent Arab leaders from the Bay Area. I thought that it would be fascinating to tell their stories to the American public, especially in a political climate that was rife with xenophobia and anti-Arab fervor. I suggested it to the director of the Arab Film Festival, who knew people at PBS and since it was at the approach of Arab American Heritage Month, the project was green lit and we shot a dozen episodes both in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
MM: What gave you the idea for “Night Walk” and how long did it take to write and film?
AT: I got the idea for “Night Walk” in a dream I had while I was in college at 20 years old. I remember waking up one night, having dreamt of an interfaith couple traveling through the Middle East and encountering corrupt police. An incident occurred and it snowballed until something terrible happened. I thought it was an interesting starting point for a script so I made a note of it, in a textbook where I keep all my thoughts and ideas for potential film projects.
Years later, when I set out to write my first feature film, I browsed through that notebook and thought that this was a strong inciting incident for a story so I developed the entire film around it. At that time, I was also doing some research about the prison system and decided to make it into a prison drama. It took several months to come up with the full screenplay but the production was what was the most time-consuming. We started in 2015 but due to production issues, we had to interrupt filming for almost three years and only resumed in 2018. The shoot in and of itself was only about fifteen days long but it took almost four years to complete the film, when post-production is taken into consideration.
MM: How did you convince Hollywood to distribute this film?
AT: The movie was completed in 2019 but it was only acquired in 2020 and released in 2021. It was indeed a lot of work to convince Hollywood to distribute the film – something I didn’t necessarily expect when I began to work on this project. It was the right combination of timing and paradigm shift that caused Lionsgate to move forward with us. I believe the story has always been important to tell, but during the pandemic and following the BLM protests, people saw the importance of diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. A film that challenges stereotypes around Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood isn’t just rare. It’s pretty much inexistent. But in this climate of racial reckoning, studios understand that people are tired of watching white-washed franchises/sequels/prequels, etc. They want to hear about original stories from parts of the world they don’t necessarily know. And we, diverse voices, are here waiting to tell them!
MM: What has been the best thing about working in the movie industry so far?
AT: There is something truly satisfying about seeing your thoughts and dreams performed by professionals on a big screen. It’s hard to describe but after I shed blood, sweat, and tears to create this piece, being able to see it along with fellow filmmakers, family and friends, in a large auditorium gave me a huge feeling of accomplishment. Not only that. The fact that millions of people around the world also have access to my movie in dozens of languages fills me with pride. I realize that I can tell stories and that people are interested in hearing them.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
AT: My next project also aims to enhance the public representation of Arabs in Hollywood. It tells the true story of a Lebanese immigrant who reached the highest heights in service to the U.S. as an FBI and CIA agent by leading the capture of Saddam Hussein. She then suffered a precipitous fall due to prejudice against Arabs. She put her life and the life of her unborn child on the line for this country, only to be wrongly cast as a terrorist and depicted in the news as “Jihad Jane” amid post 9/11 anti-Arab fervor. I believe that beyond a story of espionage and betrayal, it is a sobering commentary on cultural alienation, the power of fear, and the fragility of the American dream.