“We are conscious of cinema’s role in society.”

– Nour-Eddine Saïl, Director of the Centre Cinématographique Marocain

Tangier: the city that inspired and attracted so many artists, writers and bohemians, called the “Dream City” by Paul Bowles and popularly known as “la ville du Détroit”, because of its singular geographical location on the Strait of Gibraltar where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean, recently hosted the 12th edition of the Festival National du Film (FNF) from 21-29 January, 2011. First inaugurated to promote national film production in 1982 (23 films all together, in all genres), the FNF is the most important rendezvous for film in Morocco. In its early years, the festival was itinerant and intermittent. Since 2005, it has moved to Tangier and has been held there annually ever since then. (1)

In this city where both Delacroix and Matisse sojourned, my hotel, overlooking the Bay of Tangier, was curiously named after… Rembrandt (the lobby did include, for good form’s sake, reproductions of The Night Watch and a late self-portrait!), where I ate the best couscous I’ve ever had. Screenings were held at the Roxy Cinema, with reruns the next day at the Tangier Cinémathèque and press conferences were at the Chellah Hotel. Festivals are ideal for meeting up with old friends, and I had a chance to spend time with  Gérard Vaugeois, Mouloud Mimoun and Fatima Medouni, organisers of the annual Maghreb des Films screenings in France. (2) I also had the opportunity to exchange notes with two Moroccan film critics: Mohamed Dahan and Ahmed Boughaba. (3)

This year’s festival boasted nineteen feature films and as many shorts: a bumper year for Moroccan film. It bears repeating – nineteen feature-length films: that’s more films than either Belgium or Russia produce annually. Additionally, Morocco, of all the countries in the Maghreb, remains the most active in film. The festival is organised by the Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CCM), the government-run agency modeled after the recently renamed Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) in France. The FNF competition is open to all films directed by Moroccan filmmakers, whether living in Morocco or abroad (Article 4 of the Festival Rules). The CCM’s current policies have been in place since 2004. Its commission meets three times a year and the selected films are funded up to 80 percent, for an average cost of 5,000,000 Dirhams or 500,000 Euros.

The nineteen films in this year’s feature-length category represent the total number of films receiving funding in 2010, while in the shorts category, nineteen films out of a total of eighty were selected. This year’s festival included, for the first time, two documentaries (Nabil Ayouch’s My Land and Hakim Belabbès’ Fragments), thus in synch with the current trend to collapse boundaries between fiction and documentary (see, in this regard, the manifesto of the Festival International du Documentaire in Marseille) (4). The 2011 edition also showcased a record number of Amazigh films: Mohamed Mernich’s Wak wak a tairi, Abdellah Toukouna (Ferkous)’s Swingum and Jamal Belmajdoub’s Meghiss. Seven of this year’s feature films were by first-time directors, including Nassim Abbasi’s Majid, Myriam Bakir’s Agadir Bombay and Selma Bargach’s La 5ième corde. The contribution of female directors was relatively low at 10 percent: two in each of the two categories. Two shorts (37 Kilomètres Celsius and Coup de soleil) and three of the feature-length films (La Mosquée, Mirages and Agadir Bombay) are set in southern Morocco, which suggests a geographical repositioning for Moroccan film. (5)

Nour-Eddine Saïl This year’s FNF, inaugurated by Nour-Eddine Saïl, the Director of the CCM, opened with a press conference on the upcoming 22nd FESPACO in Ougadougou, Burkino Faso. Morocco will be present at this year’s FESPACO with eleven films and Saïl noted that the current vitality of Moroccan film helps African cinema in general, which has been noticeably declining in recent years.

Screenings began with the most recent feature by the popular Moroccan filmmaker, Daoud Aoulad-Syad. Blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction is at the very heart of his new film. Entitled La Mosquée, Aoulad-Syad’s film is a biting social commentary that is also extremely funny.

Set in Zagora, La Mosquée pretends to be a sequel to the filmmaker’s earlier film En attendant Pasolini (2007), where various sets, including a mosque, were constructed for the film. After shooting was finished, all of the sets were destroyed, except for the ersatz mosque, which many locals had begun treating as a real house of worship. In La Mosquée, Moha, the proprietor of the land where the edifice was built, wants it demolished, so that he can continue to use the plot to feed his family. But the diminutive Moha quickly runs afoul of the reigning authorities, civic as well as religious, who forbid him to destroy the make-believe mosque whose minaret doesn’t even point towards Mecca… (To tear it down, he’s told he needs an authorisation from the CCM!) The one person willing to help him is the former imam, a man of real faith who has been ousted and demoted to caretaking the local cemetery. Daoud Aoulad-Syad, appearing in the opening scenes as himself, mocks cinema’s conventions and points a finger at film productions that, once their films are “wrapped”, make their exit, with no thought to the villagers whose lives have been disrupted by the shoots. And the irony of the scene with the film extra dressed up as Roman soldier, posing for a group of Chinese tourists (“Be generous with him! He is poor and miserable!”) is particularly bittersweet here in southern Morocco, where the main sources of income are tourism and cinema.

Although this is the first film performance for the actor playing Moha (Abdellhadi Touhrache, who comes from the theatre), he is superb and the audience empathises with his dilemma. The cast also includes Haj Naceur Oujri (as the local Mokkadem), whom I discussed in my recent report on the National Festival of Amazigh Film.

To date, La Mosquée has won numerous awards in international festivals, including a Special Mention from the Jury at the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Bayard d’Or for best screenplay at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur (Belgium), a Special Mention from the Jury at the Festival International du Cinéma Méditerranéen de Montpelier (France), the Tanit de Bronze in the Journées Cinématographique de Carthage (Tunisia), and a Special Mention from the Jury at the Festival International du Film du Caire (Egypt). Surprisingly, at the FNF, it was overlooked.

For this festivalgoer, La Mosquée merited, at the very least, an award for its screenplay, which stands out, particularly in the context of the other films in competition. Here in Morocco, it’s a commonplace, even among my students, to point out that the weak link in Moroccan film is the screenplay. The film that did win for best screenplay, Majid, is an insipid remake of Nabil Ayouch’s magisterial Ali Zaoua: prince de la rue (Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets), about street children in Casablanca, which won the FNF’s Grand Prix in 2001. Majid is similarly set in Casablanca and nearby Mohammedia. But never for one moment do we believe that Majid, a photogenic urchin with a mop of hair à la the Beatles in 1965, is an orphan who has difficulty fending for himself. Majid even includes a poor imitation of Saïd Taghmaoui’s bad-guy role in Ali Zaoua. And the film’s screenplay just doesn’t add up: a great deal of energy is spent early on in the film when Majid inadvertently finds a cell phone but to no real purpose in the narrative dénouement. To make matters worse, the script’s weakness is exacerbated by an intrusive and predictable film score. Surprisingly, the jury also distinguished Majid with a Special Mention.

The CCM, in its policies, closely adheres to the French method, which aims at quantity in the hope of eventually producing several outstanding films. Out of the 220-250 films that France produces every year (including co-productions), ten to fifteen are exceptional. It’s the old basketball metaphor that a former boss of mine loved to employ: you keep tossing balls in the air until you get one in the hoop… One may or may not like basketball, but Nour-Eddine’s Saïl’s logic just may be right: great films cannot be programmed, but to stimulate film production you need to make movies. Still, I would argue that a more stringent selection at the screenplay stage would be highly beneficial.

Insofar as films represent the society that produces them, I was particularly struck, as a female viewer, that the topic of prostitution (Swingum, Femmes en miroirs, Agadir Bombay) and sexual violence against women (Cicatrices) surfaced repeatedly in many of these films. And I’m reminded that the festival, in its editorial, cites the philosopher Alain Badiou in his Penser le cinéma (2003):

Basically, the cinema is a lesson of hope for philosophy. Cinema says to philosophers: ‘Nothing is lost’; precisely because it deals with what is the most despicable: violence, betrayal, obscenity. It says to us: ‘It is not because that exists that thinking is lost, thinking can prevail even in this element. It is not always going to prevail, it is not going to prevail everywhere, but victories do exist. [My translation]

Initially, the opening scenes of Agadir Bombay, with its subject matter and pastel colours, made me think it’s a film destined for young teenage girls. It’s the story of fourteen year-old Imane who lives in Taroudant, a small Amazigh city not far from Agadir. Her older sister loves Britney and the U.S., but Imane is crazy about Indian musicals and Bollywood. When Leila, who takes care of children in Agadir but regularly visits her mother in Taroudant, invites Imane for the weekend, the film suddenly changes genres: Leila brings the adolescent along for an “adult” party at her boyfriend’s. He turns out to be Leila’s pimp who presses her into service for the evening. When he then also tries to enlist Imane to please a wealthy client and Leila resists, he forcefully knocks her out. Imane succeeds in escaping her would-be molester by shooting him but Leila is sent to jail. Despite all these peripeteia, the film, which overly relies on a voiceover narration, rallies with a “happy” end. The film was co-produced by Rachida Saadi (Jana Productions) who also produced Hassan Benjelloun’s excellent Où vas-tu Moshe? (2007).

In an interview, the filmmaker Myriam Bakir, who grew up in France but whose father comes from Taroudant, noted that the topic of prostitution “doesn’t leave one indifferent. In writing the film’s script, I wanted to show how women, who are often young and beautiful, are led into prostitution.” (6) I have no statistics on prostitution in Morocco, but I was very surprised last spring when three out of six groups in my screenwriting class wrote short scripts on the topic of… female prostitution.

Prostitution reappears, too, in Saad Chraibi’s Femmes en miroirs, with the actress who played Leila in Agadir Bombay (Noufissa Benchahida, for which she won the award for Best Supporting Female Role) here appearing as a talented photojournalist who returns home to Morocco when her mother is dying.

The other feature-film by a female director is Selma Bargach’s La 5ième corde. It’s a bildungsroman of Malek, a young lutist that recalls Alain Corneau’s Tous les matins du monde (1991). The film’s title refers to the 9th century Arab composer Zyriab, one of the main founders of Arabo-Andalusian music. (7) According to legend, Zyriab who was born in Baghdad, outperformed his teacher and was forced to flee to Spain, where he introduced the lute and improved it by adding a fifth pair of strings, which became a symbol of renascence and renewal. Zyriab was a paragon for excellence in several artistic areas, and it’s clear that the film consciously evokes his story (in particular, in the young lutist’s rivalry with his uncle and mentor who promises to reveal to him the secret of the fifth string) to understand the life of its protagonist. The film won both an award for its sound and a Special Mention. But despite its erudition (or rather because of it), La 5ème corde never fully succeeds in capturing our interest. Nonetheless, the young filmmaker does excel at incorporating her characters in their physical locations, often breathtaking, for instance the scenes in Essaouira, where she pays homage to Orson Welles’ Othello, which was shot there. One minor correction: the film mentions that Othello won the Palme d’Or for Morocco in 1952, but the Palme d’Or didn’t yet exist. Welles’ film did, however, win the Grand Prix and it’s worth noting that Othello is the only Moroccan film to date to have won the Grand Prix (or the Palme d’Or). (8)

This year’s Grand Prix at the FNF went to Hakim Belabbès’ Fragments (In Pieces), an autobiographical documentary that recalls for this viewer the recent work of French filmmaker Alan Cavalier (Le Filmeur [2004]; Irène [2009]). Fragments records the filmmaker and his family over a long period of time (in the beginning, his parents worry about his career path; his mother re-coins an expression when she tells him he is like “un oiseau errant”[”a wandering bird”]). The film, at times, borders on the voyeuristic and may make audience members a little uncomfortable. American-trained, Belabbès studied filmmaking at Columbia College in Chicago where he currently teaches at the Art Institute.

There was a lot of buzz this year around Hicham Lasri’s first feature, entitled The End. Critic Mohamed Dahan calls the film an exposé on the “bas fonds de Casa” [the dregs of Casablanca] and it’s worth noting that Casablanca seems to inspire filmmakers: Un Amour à Casablanca (1991), Ali Zaoua (2000), Les Anges ne volent pas à Casablanca (2004) and Casanegra (2008) are all set there.

A historical fiction, The End opens in July 1999, on the eve of the death of Morocco’s longtime monarch Hassan II (1961-99), whose demise marked both the end of an era as well as the filmmaker’s childhood. The film tells the story of a marginalised youth, M’key, in search of a father figure, who falls in love with Rita, a young woman whose virginity is ensured by her gang-member brothers by keeping her enchained. M’key is the protégé of Daoud, the police commissioner whose nickname is “the system’s pit-bull” and who was responsible for torturing and killing, years before, Rita’s father. Daoud appears to be a stand-in for Hassan II, seen here as a kind of super cop. During his reign, known as the period of lead, Hassan II imprisoned many political dissidents. (9) The End definitely merited its Special Award, because Lasri has attempted something ambitious with his first film. Mohamed Dahan calls The End an example of “the new Moroccan cinema, light-years away from the ‘cinema du Papa’ and the reasonable tone of Morocco’s first filmmakers.” (10) Here is an excerpt from the filmmaker’s press release:

I remember the hours immediately following the announcement of Hassan II’s death like a pure moment from a disaster film: the crowd wandering in the streets, people in tears, those who burglarised supermarkets and gas stations. People were afraid of a coup d’état that was going to transform Morocco into a banana republic without bananas. I remember the muffled threat of a future that seems momentarily out of stock. I was twenty-two and I was witnessing the end of the world; that lasted a few hours before everyone returned to their televisions to watch their favourite program.

It was the world before 9/11 and the generalised mania for cell phones.

[My translation]

The End was shot by Maxime Alexandre-Aic, reputed for his work on Alexandre Aja’s horror film, The Hills Have Eyes (2006; shot here in Ouarzazate.) The film’s visuals are purposely restricted to a monochromatic palette, in order “to give the film a particular ambiance, to distill the atmosphere of a legend.” (11) Stylistically, The End reminded this viewer of an animated film, although it’s not. Still, for all its inventiveness and historical setting, it lacks the force and appeal of films like Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), both animated historical films. But Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis are its references, because like them and Nabil Ayouch’s My Land, it engages history with both a capital and little H/h. The actors are all excellent, particularly Sam Kanater as Daoud (whom many will recognise from 24 and Alias). Ultimately, though, the spectator never fully identifies with M’key. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s famous line: “It’s the screenplay, stupid.” Or, as my Parisian colleague Mouloud Mimoun put it, Moroccan filmmakers too often fall into the trap of following the French auteur model of writing their own screenplays and directing. . .

Mohamed Achaour falls into this category. If the title of his entry, Un film suggests a lack of inspiration, his film nonetheless does exhibit a certain narrative élan. In addition to being director and screenwriter, Achaour is also lead actor: he’s a filmmaker who has difficulty . . . writing a screenplay. The first half is hilarious, as he recounts various ideas and tortures both his wife (his real-life wife, Fatym Layachi, a Monica Bellucci lookalike) and best friend. Unquestionably, the film would have worked better as a short: the last thirty minutes of the 75-minute film consist of recycling various gags (the imitation of Bogey and Bergman in Casablanca – “We’ll always have Paris” – occurs no less than four times!), as the film increasingly loses momentum. The jury’s award of Best First Film is a vote of confidence for when Achaour has the right script.

The festival included several historical films, including Meghiss, about the Berber quest for independence from the Spanish in the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. The Rif War, which lasted from 1921 to 1927, was one of “the most forceful demonstrations of African resistance against European colonizers”. (12) While not entirely successful, the film nevertheless represents the first war movie by a Moroccan filmmaker. The selection also included Larbi, based on the eponymous black Moroccan who remains the country’s most famous soccer player. Nicknamed “the black pearl”, Larbi’s record of playing fifteen years for the French national team has yet to be broken. A protégé of the boxer Marcel Cerdan (he and Piaf both make de rigueur appearances), Larbi was politically ambiguous, but this biopic prefers to airbrush his portrait. And the surrounding frame narrative with the French journalist is not very effective.

In his blog on the festival, Mohamed Dahan notes that the shorts section of the festival has in recent years been a fertile breeding ground for subsequent Grand Prix winners. (13) (A filmmaker must have made at least three shorts in order to apply for CCM funding for a feature-length film.) One of the most successful entries in this year’s festival was Adil El Fadili’s Courte Vie, winner of the Grand Prix for short films. It tells the story of Zhar, whose life is permanently scarred by a series of misfortunes beginning with the death of his mother in labour. Stylistically, the film recalls Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001), although in a telephone interview, the filmmaker denied any direct influence. The film’s visual look is distinctive and the credits list Augustuscolor. Also worth noting in the shorts category was Ahmed Baidou’s La Mémoire: a fascinating silent film about an artist trying to remember his parents, who died in the earthquake that razed Agadir in 1960.

Among the Amazigh films, the latest contribution of Mohamed Mernich, a pioneer in Amazigh film, was much anticipated. Mernich’s film Tilila (1992) marks the first film in the Amazigh language shot in 35 mm. His latest film, Wak wak a tairi was shot on video and visually it recalls the theatrical origins of Amazigh film. Mernich shot the film in darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect, and then dubbed it into Amazigh. Mernich may have done this in order to have new faces, since the actors working in Amazigh films are often the same. The film’s protagonist, Fatih, is placed in a dilemma when his father, head of the local Amazigh village, wishes to marry him to the daughter of another tribal chieftain with whom he is in conflict. But Fatih, a student in Casablanca, prefers to marry his college sweetheart. If the film breaks no new ground in terms of filmic language, its plot nevertheless succeeds in validating “modernity” as well as tradition.

Nabil Ayouch is both a developing auteur and an astute businessman. His company, Ali n’ Productions, produced Talal Selhami’s Mirages: it’s the story of five candidates vying for a position in a multinational corporation in Morocco. Only one person will be selected, and the five must compete in a final test. After surrendering their cell phones, they awake to find themselves abandoned in the desert, with only four bottles of water… The film feels like a cross between Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002) and one of the many films on the horrors of the globalised workplace, like Laurent Cantet’s excellent Ressources humaines (1999). The general tonality in the first part of Mirages is sombre and dark, a visual metaphor on what it’s like to work for an inhuman corporation. Particularly noteworthy was the film’s unusual use of flashbacks. Mirages and its director of photography, Mohamed Sellam, were singled out for Best Image award.

Ayouch was also present with his own documentary My Land, where the filmmaker confronts two opposing memories. In his press release, Ayouch says he wanted to: “make a film about memory. The memory of a land. On the one hand, a frozen memory, as if time had stood still. And on the other, a forgotten memory or a memory never learned.”

The director began working on this film in June 2003, when he visited Israel for the first time. My Land includes interviews with elderly Palestinians who were forced to abandon their homes in 1948 and who today live in camps in Lebanon, where, tragically, they have been denied both citizenship and the right to work. Ayouch also interviews several young Israelis who today live on the land formerly owned by the Palestinians and he asks the Israelis, who seem strangely unaware of this history, to look at his footage with the Palestinian refugees. The confrontation is not conclusive: while it does provoke a crise de conscience in two of the Israelis (“It’s not easy to see that someone pays the price for me to live in this paradise,” says one), two others remain adamant about their right to the land they live on. A fifth Israeli is already committed to the Palestinian cause and doesn’t need convincing: “This history haunts us… I feel close to them.” What makes this face-à-face particularly moving is Ayouch’s anchoring in his own autobiography: in the initial voiceover, he tells us that his mother is a French Jew, originally from Tunisia and his father a Moroccan Muslim. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict forged his very political identity. My Land won two awards: one for its editing and one for its original soundtrack.

* * *

Moroccan cinema is a young cinema: its national origins date back only to the 1970s. In his closing press conference, Nour-Eddine Saïl pointed out that ten years ago it would have been unimaginable for Morocco to produce twenty films a year. I would say that the CCM, in the 2011 edition of the FNF, has largely succeeded in its challenge.

A word in closing about this year’s poster, particularly striking, which was designed in a contest by students at l’ESAV (the Ecole supérieure des arts visuels), a private film school in Marrakech. Wonderfully festive and dynamic, the FNF’s poster pays homage, for the first time, to the country’s three distinct cultures: Amazigh, Arabic and French, while its colours (red and green) evoke the Moroccan flag.

Festival National du Film, Tangier

21–29 January, 2011

Festival website: http://www.ccm.ma/fnf12/competition.html

Endnotes

  1. The second edition of the FNF was held in 1984 and featured twelve feature-length films and eight shorts. Because of a lack of sufficient films, the third edition of the festival wasn’t held until 1991, with 12 feature-length films and five shorts. In 2000, Morocco produced roughly four films per year.
  2. http://maghrebdesfilms.fr/
  3. Ahmed Boughaba, وارسل اليك هذه الرسالة: مع تحيات فريق العمل بالجزيرة الوثائقية.
  4. http://www.fidmarseille.org/dynamic/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=91&Itemid=118&lang=french
  5. Mohammed Bakrim, “Le Journal du Festival National du Film, “ lundi, 24 janvier 2011, n° 3, p. 2.
  6. Najat Faïssal, “Maghress, 12ième Festival national du film de Tanger: “Agadir Bombay,” un film émouvant sur la prostitution,” http://www.maghress.com/fr/aujourdhui/80496
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zyriab
  8. Welles’ Othello won the Grand Prix at Cannes in ex aequo with an Italian film long since forgotten: Renato Castellani’s Due soldi di speranza.
  9. “Years of Lead (Morocco)”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Years_of_Lead_%28Morocco%29
  10. Mohane Dahan, La Bande de Casa,” 1 February 2011: http://mohanedahan.over-blog.com/article-la-bande-de-casa 66268608.html
  11. Hicham Lasri, “La musique dans les films me gêne”, “Le Journal du Festival National du Film”, jeudi, 27 janvier 2011, n° 6, p. 1.
  12. Afrol News, “Conference over Spanish War Crimes Banned in Morocco”, http://www.afrol.com/News2002/mor001_spain_gas.htm
  13. Mohamed Dahan, “Il court. . . il court, le cinema marocain;” 4 February 2011: http://mohanedahan.over-blog.com/article-il-court-il-court-le-cinema-marocain-66461682.html