“Ideas are on the street.” –Abu Othman Amro bnu Bahr al-Jahed (776 – 869)

“The cinema is there to mend wounded souls.” – Egyptian filmmaker, Yousry Nasrallah

“There is no better prospective project for a filmmaker than to participate, with his modest means, in the radical and systematic transformation of his society to build a world that isn’t traumatic.” — Ahmed Bouânani (1)

The city of Saint-Denis, a suburb located just north of Paris, recently hosted the sixth edition of the “Panorama des Cinémas du Maghreb.” The location is fortuitous because Saint-Denis’s population, with around 100,000 inhabitants—who are locally known as Dyonisians—is largely of maghrebin origin. The festival’s principal screenings were held at the Cinéma l’Ecran, conveniently located right at the metro exit, in an extensive pedestrian zone. The festival opened on Wednesday evening at the city hall, located behind the cinema. The esplanade abutting the cinema includes the 12th century Basilica of Saint Denis, built by the Abbot of Suger and renowned for being the first cathedral constructed in the Gothic style. The Basilica is a also necropolis for early French kings and thus a place rich in national meaning: in Robert Guédiguian’s Le Promeneur du Champs-de-Mars (2005), François Mitterrand (played by Michel Bouquet) pays fealty to their recumbent effigies.

The “Panorama des Cinémas du Maghreb” is jointly organized by Boris Spire, longtime director of the Cinéma l’Ecran and Kamel El Mahouti, president of Indigènes Films. Spire, in his role as programmer, aims at targeting his audience and is always thinking of ways to welcome a new public. El Mahouti, who lives with his wife Emma Raguin, a festival collaborator, and children in Saint-Denis, was born in Casablanca. But from the age of five, he grew up in France and he studied film at Paris 8 in Saint-Denis. Next year, we can look forward to his own first feature-length film, entitled Mon frère.

Given the recent tumultuous as well as unforeseen events in the Arab world these past six months, I was particularly excited to attend this year’s edition, featuring thirty films over five days. All were shot prior to the Arab Spring, but I wondered if certain signs of the revolutions-to-come could be discerned? Of the three countries of the Maghreb represented in the festival (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), Morocco is the most active in film and in fact leads film production on the African continent, after Egypt and South Africa. (Moroccans are rightly proud to have been present at this year’s Cannes Festival with three films). The “Panorama des Cinémas du Maghreb” is not a “best of.” Its goal is rather to show the diversity of film production in the three countries. The Panorama’s other goal is to showcase maghrebin films that otherwise would not be seen, in the hope that they will find proper distribution, because despite France’s substantial maghrebin population, this cinema remains under-distributed there as well as abroad.

Case in point: Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s excellent La Mosquée, which has garnered a lion’s share of awards on the international festival circuit over the past year (2) (detailed in my earlier report on the Festival National du Film in Tangier in January) has not found a French distributor. (Nor have any of his four previous films been picked up for distribution in North America). The festival organizers intelligently chose to inaugurate this year’s Panorama with La Mosquée, a real crowd pleaser.

On the forefront of contemporary maghrebin filmmakers, Aoulad-Syad is a charismatic personality, a Moroccan griot, and I was curious to see how the Saint-Denis audience would react to his modern-day fable. For years, Aoulad-Syad worked as a photo-journalist in the tradition of the great Magnum reporters and he admits he likes pushing the envelope between fiction and documentary. La Mosquée tells the story of the villager, Moha, whose life is upended when he rents a plot of land to a film crew who built a mosque on it, supposedly for Aoulad-Syad’s earlier film Waiting for Pasolini (2007). After the shoot, the crew destroyed all the sets, except the mosque, and now Moha wishes to recuperate his land, so he can grow crops to feed his family. The local imam and villagers, however, have begun to treat the décor as a real mosque and forbid Moha to destroy it. The story is enticing, and the actors, in particular Abdelhadi Tohrach (a stage actor from Marrakech), who plays Moha, are superb. Astonishingly, the film was completely taken at face value by the public who accepted not only its legend as true but who believed, erroneously, that the cast were not professionals but real villagers playing themselves. (Curiously, an internet search on the film further corroborated and repeated the tall tale of a fake mosque that was taken for a real one.) In going to see Angelina Jolie play an undercover agent in Salt (2010), the public knowingly engages, for the film’s duration, in suspension of belief. But in seeing a Moroccan film by a Moroccan filmmaker (who plays a cameo role as himself at the beginning of the film), the public accepts everything on screen as true. Herein lies a topic fertile for future reflection. It was in any case a pleasure to see La Mosquée again.

Another highpoint of the festival was the homage paid to the recently deceased Moroccan filmmaker, Ahmed Bouânani, an important mentor for Aoulad-Syad and a protean talent recalling the diverse activities of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Despite his modest output (four shorts and one feature-length film), Bouânani was a major figure who, in addition to making films, was also a poet, novelist and painter.

Bouânani (b. 1938) belonged to that first generation of Moroccans who studied film formally: In the early 60s, he was a student at l’IDHEC (L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques; today LA FEMIS) in Paris, along with another future Moroccan filmmaker Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi (whose 1993 film A la recherché du mari de ma femme remains one of the most popular Moroccan films of all time). In 1965, Bouânani landed a day job at the Centre Cinématographique Moroccain as a film editor; at the time, the CCM produced only newsreels, mostly dealing with the royal family. Notwithstanding his status as a civil servant, Bouânani routinely refused to show up for work when there were no films to edit! A true artist, he preferred staying home where he collaborated with his wife, Naïma, on his many projects. Not surprisingly, such behavior landed him in trouble with authorities who, for years, froze his already miserly salary and banned him from making films (at the time, there was no independent film production in Morocco). Against all odds, he succeeded in making a few films, often by getting his friends to take credit for his work.

The Bouânani films were introduced by his daughter Touda, herself a video artist in Bordeaux, and the director Ali Essafi. (The director of the fascinating documentary Ouarzazate Movie [2001], Ali Essafi is currently making a film on Bouânani.) Essafi described Bouânani’s oeuvre as “foundational for Moroccan cinema.” Bouânani, during his lifetime, was both highly esteemed by his peers and completely unknown to the larger public. A retrospective of his oeuvre will consecrate him later this year at MoMA in New York, the Guggenheim in Berlin, and the Tate Modern in London. Bouânani also authored a three-volume opus on the history of Moroccan cinema entitled La Septième Porte, which has yet to be published.

Born during the French colonial period of his country’s history, Bouânani’s youth coincided with Moroccan independence, and his work reflects the confrontation of these two worlds. As a filmmaker, he was a firm believer that images must speak. His short 6/12 (1968) is quite simply stunning and amazingly close to the contemporaneous Structuralist filmmakers, such as Hollis Frampton. (Bouânani was an ardent cinephile and ran a cine-club for friends in his home: is it possible that he had access to Structuralist films at the time?) Featuring Casablanca, the film is an example of the city symphony genre, like Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphonie einer Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927). Without dialogue, the film includes a wide variety of music and urban sounds. The film (at length of 17’45”) begins with the city waking up at 6 a.m., still dark outside, and closes with people getting off a tram at midday (hence the title, 6/12). In between, we see visual impressions of Casa in the late sixties: a garçon sets out chairs on a café terrace, a child heads to school, a window washer is at work, and towards the end, we see a series of shots of people eating, alternating with caged monkeys, set to James Brown’s 1968 hit “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)”!

The other short included in the program was Mémoire 14, based on Bouânani’s poem of the same title. It’s a silent film, made from found footage (from the photo archives of the CCM) and stills of his own paintings. The title references not to the First World War, as I first thought, but refers to the then contemporary century (14th) in the Muslim calendar. Originally a feature-length film dealing with the Rif War (1909 – 1927) between Spain and the Moroccan Rif Berbers, the film was so stringently censored that it was reduced to a mere 24 minutes.

In 1979, at the age of forty, Bouânani made his one and only feature-length film Mirage, based on his eponymous novel. Shot in black and white, the film won five prizes but was never properly distributed in Morocco, because no distributor was willing to pick up a film shot in black in white. But for the filmmaker, shooting Mirage in black and white was not a whim but a real necessity. Set in final years of the Protectorate, Mirage is a thinly disguised critique of Hassan II’s regime. It recounts the travails of a poor man, Mohamed Ben Mohamed, after he finds a cache of dollars in a sack of flour. The film reveals the influence of early Fellini, in particular La Strada (1954) and Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957). Bouânani will soon enter the history books of world cinema.

One of my favorite films in this year’s Panorama was Mokhtar, which recently won the Grand Prix for shorts at the Festival of Tétouan earlier this year. This exceptional short, filmed in an Amazigh village in the Western High Atlas mountains, was directed by Halima Ouardiri, a young filmmaker from Montreal of Swiss-Moroccan origins. Based on a true story, it tells the story of a young goatherd, Mokthar, who one day discovers a baby owl in a tree trunk where his goats have been grazing. Not realizing that owls are considered a bad omen in the local custom, Mokhtar brings the owl home to care for it. As punishment, he is sequestered by his father and given little to eat. The film is a reflection on the ongoing strength of superstition today in remote areas of Maghreb. It is also a critique of a profoundly patriarchal society. One writer sees Mokhtar’s “new pet as a personification of his rebellion against his family that becomes a symbol of his fledgling independence.” (3) Mingling fiction with a documentary approach, the film stands out for its breathtaking photography: for example, the opening shots of the goats in the argan trees. The actors, all non-professionals, are all exceptional.

The festival also included Tagnawittude: Au Coeur de la trance, a fascinating introduction to the age-old Gnawa tradition, popular throughout the Maghreb. The Gnawa involves an intense practice of music that leads to a state of trance and is linked to a form of Dionysian mysticism. For the filmmaker, Rahma Benhamou El Madani, making the film was a way of remembering her mother, who regularly practiced the Gnawa trance.

Another personal favorite in this year’s line-up was La Place, the first musical comedy in Algeria, if not the Maghreb. The film tells the story of a group of 20-year-old Algerians who have a dream of urban development in their housing project. Filmed entirely with non-professionals, the film is an ode to young Algerians, understandably anxious to turn the page of their somber national history. Made by the filmmaker Dahmane Bouzid, who received his film education in the U.S.S.R. in the 70s, the film is full of hope for the future. Entirely financed by the Algerian government, it was originally shot as a serial for Algerian television. For this spectator, La Place, which clocks in at 110 minutes, would benefit from a tighter edit. Still, it joins the august and select company of musical comedies that tackle serious social issues, like Robert Wise’s West Side Story (1961) and John Greyson’s superb Zero Patience (1993). The distributor, Jacques Choukroun, will distribute La Place in France this fall.

In its first edition, the “Panorama des Cinémas du Maghreb,” undoubtedly because of Kamal El Mouhati’s close ties to his birthplace, was devoted to Moroccan cinema. Since then, the festival has embraced the cinemas of Tunisia and Algeria. For future editions, we can look forward to the Panorama extending its purview beyond the Maghreb to include other film-producing Arab countries.

Panorama des Cinémas du Maghreb, Saint Denis
4-8 May, 2011


  1. Quoted in: Mohamed Bakrim, “Ahmed Bouânani, Une esthétique de l”errance,” Cine Mag (Morocco), December 2006. My translation.
  2. Since my festival report on the Tanger Festival, La Mosquée has gone on to win several other prestigious awards: Best Image at the Fespaco Festival in Ougadougou (Burkina Faso), as well as the Grand Prix and the Best Actor at the Festival International du Cinéma Méditerranéen de Tétouan (Morocco).
  3. http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=film&no=11997 (Consulted on 27 May, 2011).