What is the Sovereigns Anonymous program?
A radio program that puts the arts and culture at the service of the rehabilitation of prisoners in Quebec, by inviting artists from different backgrounds, in particular stars, in order to create a bridge between the prison world and the outside world. The idea is that inmates can get a better idea of themselves, talking about themselves and having a look at each other.
What were the media and social repercussions?
It is certain that there was direct fallout on the inmates participating in the show. Many of them have made this program their apprenticeship, since it is not only radio but it is also educational. Many of them have acquired new tools to communicate publicly, to express themselves on personal matters. It is not for them to speak like a journalist or a columnist, but to speak about their lives, their career and especially their life projects.
For me, Anonymous Sovereigns is this: “I don’t want to know what you did as a crime, but I want to know what you have as a life project that must be presented in a certain way.” This is where I appeal to culture, creation and artists. Almost 90% of Anonymous Sovereigns are creators, agents of culture who have been extraordinary collaborators and who have helped me in my mission.
Mohamed Lotfi during the 25th anniversary of his program Souverains anonyme, receiving the medal of the National Assembly from Christine St-Pierre then Minister of Culture.
For the media coverage, it is certain that for 30 years now, many Quebeckers have known about this program and when the award was announced, many congratulations were received. People know that the fact of having held this program during all that time was not easy, especially since the work of social reintegration is not done in the medium term. Today, I am proud to see anonymous sovereigns reintegrated, who work, who have founded a family.
You recently received the Prix du Québec, in recognition of this work. What does this distinction represent for you?
It represents so many things and I wish, moreover, to have a special thought and to pay tribute to the actor Michel Mongeau, who has just left us and who had a key role, without whom I would not have received this award. .
This award represents for me a tribute to free radio. The one that I have been doing for more than thirty years is the one in the service of social causes, the rehabilitation of incarcerated people, who suffers from a lot of indifference and for which I consider that this award officially pays tribute.
What can we read in the book you recently devoted to Sovereigns Anonymous?
This work, “Flights of time”, brings together some fifty texts to go around the experience of Anonymous Sovereigns as well as my personal reflections on rehabilitation, the raison d’être of a prison, but also a lot of anecdotes with our guests, such as Céline Dion, Albert Jacquard, Abbé Pierre…
These are chronicles of the “anonymous years”, where we find a lot of testimony from detainees. Each of the texts ends with a poem or writing by an anonymous Sovereign. It’s a book that allowed me to lighten up by sharing these stories. It is on sale here in Quebec, not yet in Morocco, but I hope it can be done.
In 2008 and 2009, you organized a similar meeting in the Oukacha women’s prison in Casablanca. What memory do you keep of it?
I keep a memory of emotion and admiration for these extraordinary women, detained but free in their hearts and minds and who have given me the privilege of confiding in me, of telling them about their lives and of making me enough confidence to work on a theatrical text and say it in front of an audience, in the presence of the artist Saïda Fikri, thanks to the Mohammed VI Institute for the reintegration of prisoners, which allowed me to go to this establishment.
After sowing this little experiment, the idea stuck and last year I learned that there was a regular radio show in Oukacha called Idmaj, with the collaboration of the UK Embassy in Morocco.
How successful has this program been in deconstructing certain received ideas about the ability of ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society?
It is difficult for me to answer in a definite way, but I will say that I have received a lot of testimony from listeners, who say that it has changed their perception of the rehabilitation of incarcerated people. When a listener listens to an inmate on the radio in Sovereigns Anonymous, he forgets his quality and this causes a change.
Being in prison where many journalists do not go, I was able to report on certain realities in society. This is what I also did within the framework of the Macadam Tribus program that I presented on Radio Canada and where out of my 200 reports, a third was devoted to the prison world.
From there, I cannot say that this change was revolutionary; it will be the day when the anonymous Sovereigns are in all the prisons!
Was it easy for you to approach the rehabilitation of the inside of the prisons?
My past experience in the theater has allowed me to feel at ease where I am, without barriers, even when I am in a space surrounded by bars, like the prison. Deep down, I broke the barriers before going to those places. I have done dance, painting, cinema, acting, directing, radio and television animation, writing … All this allowed me to have a very big openness to the world and by going to prison, I had a totally open attitude.
This made other people – in this case the inmates – open up to me in a very spontaneous way. When a journalist opens his arms to people, is engaged, and gives voice to categories that don’t have a lot of them, it really pushes people to speak out openly about their realities and their future.
Having already been in prison in this way, I was also the only journalist to make two radio documentaries for Radio Canada on the subject of Haitian deportees, which also allowed us in Quebec to open up to our historical realities, because I already knew some in prison here.
Mohamed Lotfi at the 25th anniversary of Sovereigns Anonymous / Ph. Mohamed Lotfi
What struck you the most during this long career on the radio?
This extraordinary opportunity to do what I love, in complete freedom. It really is a gift, because it is not true to say that all journalists are free, do what they want and when they want. In my case, I was able to do it and I never felt that a way of seeing things was imposed on me.
My attachment to my freedom comes a long way. In Morocco and even during the years of lead, I was able to do theater, dance, ballet, television. I fought to do my show “Dansons”, at 18, on the National Premier Channel for six months; it was the first program on dance in the history of Moroccan television. This freedom to do things marked me, but it always reminds me that you have to fight to get it.
Mohamed Lotfi backstage at the Mohammed V Theater in Rabat – 1979 / Ph. Mohamed Lotfi
What are your future projects in relation to Souverains anonyme precisely?
I am waiting for the end of this pandemic to first celebrate this distinction with the inmates and find my anonymous Sovereigns, work with them on what we have already planned. Normally the dating program is over and I should retire, but I find it too abrupt to leave like this.
I suggested to the Service correctionnel du Québec, for which I am now doing this program, to work part-time. We will therefore work one day a week doing theater workshops. I return to my first loves and to deepen with the inmates what I was already doing with them. Anonymous sovereigns, it should not be forgotten, it is also theatricality.
For the past seven years, moreover, I have worked with inmates on short films and by doing these workshops, we are going to deepen this extraordinary exercise called dramatic art. Each prisoner will play his own role, this art seems appropriate to me to be able to distance himself from reality. It allows you to take a step back from yourself and see yourself better, in order to have the therapeutic means, when you leave prison, to also keep some distance from what brings a detainee back to prison.