Chicago, April 20, 2022—A short documentary that unravels the mystery of how the small town of Morocco in Indiana got its name will premiere May 5 on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW. The film traces the story of an 1851 traveler’s red leather boots—featured prominently on the town’s welcome sign--back to the kingdom of Morocco. Directed by Chicago journalist Jackie Spinner, Morocco, Morocco explores the 171-year-old relationship, if only by name, between the farming community in Middle America and the Muslim country on the coast of North Africa.
“We are so thrilled that WTTW will give us a chance to show the film to a larger audience,” said Spinner, who is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. “This is such a unique story about a small town in America, with fairly big parallels to life in the other Morocco. Both are places with strong connections to family and faith, but they actually know for very little about each other.”
The film was produced in association with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting by HAK Films, headed by Moroccan-American filmmaker Hakim Belabbes who teaches documentary video at Columbia College Chicago.
Spinner was driving home to Chicago with her two Moroccan-born sons after vacation in 2019 when she spotted a town called Morocco in Indiana on a map. It was only about 2 hours southeast of Chicago and just across the Illinois border. She decided to stop early one morning on the last leg of their trip.
Although they had been adopted as infants, the boys had returned to the country of Morocco to live for several months the year before their visit to the Indiana town. As she watched her sons play, her oldest son turned to her. "This doesn't look like Morocco," he told her. Her younger son then asked her where all the Moroccans were. She shared the story with Belabbes, and a film idea was born.
Spinner, a former Washington Post staff correspondent who still writes for the news outlet, spent the next two years visiting the town to find out how the town got its name and what it was like to live there, talking to a single mother who owns a coffee shop, a tattoo artist, the town constable, a lawyer who runs a snowmobile museum, a farmer and the town doctor who is an addiction specialist.
The film then travels to the North African county to search for a bootmaker whose traditional leather-making practices would have been similar to those in the mid-1850s. At the time, “Morocco” was known globally as a type of leather, with “Morocco” factories in the United States. Before then, Moroccan leather, made primarily of goat skin, was exported to Europe and the United States. Early 20th century commercial ledgers list “Morocco leather” among the goods that were imported.
Morocco, Morocco is the story of what they found.
With ties to the War of 1812 , Morocco, Indiana, has a long history of connections to US veterans, with an American Legion in town serving as a community gathering place. (The current town president, Bob Gonczy, is an officer in the Army National Guard, and the Rev. Wayne Williams, a Methodist pastor whose church is featured, is a US veteran.) Three US combat veterans served on the film crew, including associate producer Bill Putnam, sound designer Nick Novak and sound engineer Danny Woodruff Jr. (Woodruff and Novak also are alumni of Columbia College Chicago.) Other crew members included Columbia College Chicago alumni Zack Kearns, Colton Weiss and Yasmeen Sheikah. Columbia College graduate Catherine Cutaia was the colorist and online editor.
In 2019, Putnam was looking for the graves of town native Sam Rice’s family, killed in a tornado in 1912 in Morocco. Rice was a Major League baseball pitcher and outfielder. Putnam, who works for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, could not locate the family’s grave but discovered instead the broken headstone of Samuel Hedge, a War of 1812 veteran. He worked with the VA to get the stone replaced.
The pandemic hit just as the crew was finishing in the spring of 2020. A couscous dinner to introduce Moroccan-Americans to the residents of the Indiana town was postponed and then canceled. Spinner also had to cancel a trip to the country of Morocco when it closed its borders. She finally was able to travel in August 2020 and with Moroccan filmmaker Khalid Allaoui, finished the filming—in addition to finalizing the adoption of her third son. Moroccan artist Hind Ennaira produced the soundtrack of original music. Moroccan Rajae Bourdi, who worked on Spinner’s first film, Don’t Forget Me, was the editor.
The highlight of the film features the children in a 4th grade class at Morocco Elementary drawing what they think the other Morocco looks like. Moroccan children in Casablanca do the same, drawing what they imagine a small town in America would be. Their artwork, which will eventually be exhibited, is on the film’s website.
“Their ideas of each other remind us just how much we’re all connected, which is really the underpinning of the whole film,” Spinner said.
In addition to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Spinner also received additional funding from Columbia College Chicago.
For more information, visit the film’s website at www.moroccomoroccodoc.com