In 2010, while working for Surf Maroc in the small fishing Village of Taghazoute, I watched a young Moroccan girl, with hair as curly as mine, running into the water with a surfboard. My western assumptions of Islam meant that not only was I intrigued by this young girl, but shocked. I immediately wanted to find out who she was, what her family were like and whether it was ok for a Muslim girl to be surfing. I left three months later, having not followed it up, not searching for her and not answering any of my questions.
Two years later I was sat in a room in Bristol University pitching documentary ideas to industry professionals. I had planned what I was going to pitch, but as I sat there ready to regurgitate my rehearsed ideas I was completely thrown off guard. I was asked to come up with an idea on the spot that was not my planned pitch. ”Muslim female surfers” came straight out of my mouth. They were as intrigued as I had been that first time I saw the young girl running in to the sea. I sat through a grilling of the logistics of the production. Where would I stay? How would I find her? How would I communicate? Somehow I managed to convince my tutors that it was worth funding an initial two-week research trip that I had to produce a three minute film for, and if they felt there was a story, I would get further funding to produce a longer documentary for my final piece of work.
The first two-week trip could not have gone any better. One of my oldest friends lives in the village of Taghazoute, and her now husband runs one the oldest established surf schools in town, meaning his finger is completely on the pulse with the local surfers, the competitions and the other surf schools. My very first enquiry and they knew exactly who I was talking about. Her name was Meryem Elguardoum and she had been knocking on their door a number of times asking for sponsorship. She was to be found at Imouran surf school, a couple of kilometres away, surfing devils rock every hour of every day, whether there were waves or not.
I jumped straight in the tiny micra hire car with my boyfriend Tom and head to Devils rock. Meryem was just getting out the water and the coach and caretaker of the surf school Brahim, introduced us. She was happy to be filmed, to give interviews and wanted to introduce us to her family. It also transpired that the Moroccan surf championships were that weekend in Rabat but the surf school couldn’t afford the bus fares. The next day we found ouselves on our way to Rabat in the heaving micra with Meryem, two friends who were also competing, and about 6 boards piled on top getting overtaken by everything other than laden mules.
Meryem won the competition and became the youngest female in Moroccan history to win the championships, at the age of 15. I couldn’t believe my luck, I couldn’t believe the story I had to take back to my tutors.
The short film secured me the funding for the longer project and I spent a further 6 weeks filming with Meryem and her family later in the year. It was incredible experience for my first documentary.
A year later I got a phone call from CNN who had stumbled across my film and wanted to ask my permission to tell Meryem’s story on their “Inside Africa” series and wanted help with getting in touch. Meryem’s appearance on this series was watched by a company called Cocalita who decided there and then they were going to sponsor her. This was a huge deal. To be sponsored by a company outside of Morocco is something many Moroccan surfers struggle with. I was hugely proud.
Last October I was heading back to Morocco for a friend’s wedding and was eager to catch up with Meryem and hear all her news. We had kept in touch and I was excited to see her. I conjured up in my head the notion of a little follow-up interview, looking back to when I first met her and she was a 15 year old who had never left Morocco knocking on doors to try and get sponsored by local surf companies, to now, a 17 year old sponsored by a global company and being flown around the world surfing some of the most renowned surf sports.
She refused. She not only refused the interview, but as it got closer to my arrival in Morocco, she refused to see me and decided she wanted my documentary taken down off the internet.
I was confused as to what could have happened to have changed her attitude towards me so radically. I tried rationalising it, thinking maybe it was her sponsors controlling her image and my film represented her in the wrong way, and then I started thinking about what it was I was so upset about. Of course I was upset that someone I saw as my friend would turn like that, but if I was completely honest, I was upset that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted. I couldn’t round off this incredible experience with a final neat little documentary showing how far Meryem had come.
It was a great lesson to learn, that you can’t manipulate things, sometimes you get lucky, but also sometimes you don’t. There is still a huge sense of disappointment, but I am hoping that in a few years time Meryem can look back and think about the people that have helped her to get to where she is and appreciate the chain of events that led to her achieving things beyond her wildest dreams while not even beyond her teens.