A Door to the sky (1989) is a key critically acclaimed film by Morocco’s pioneering female director, Farida Benlyazid, that explores questions of spiritualty, Islam and re-connecting with a traditional Moroccan cultural heritage from a transnational feminist perspective. Despite the film’s clear significance to a history of Moroccan (and indeed Arab and African) cinema, for the longest time no copy of A Door to the Sky was available in English, with only a poor quality version (subtitled in French) in the archive of the Bibliothèque National (BNF) in Paris. No copy is was available in any format for distribution in Morocco.The film was stored in the archives of the CCM, and its state was rather sad and faded.
The TMC project has immense pleasure to announce that A Door to the Sky is now stunningly restored, subtitled in English and French again, and digitised. Our partners , Dragon DI, did a beautiful job in professionally restoring the film to its former glory. Project leader Prof. Will Higbee and Dr. Florence Martin are currently in Tangier for the world premiere of the film at the National Film Festival in Morocco this evening (5 March 2020), and yesterday, Will personally handed the copy of the film to Farida Benlyazid.
Farida Benlyazid herself was immensely happy and excited to see the film in its new glory on a small screen yesterday, and tonight she will be able to see it on the big screen, alongside a Moroccan audience, at the National Film Festival.
Restoring this film, digitising, subtitling and making it available to a Moroccan public, festival audiences and a global online audience will hopefully not only revive interest in and access to this key work of (feminist) Moroccan and world cinema but also ensure that a high quality digital copy is preserved in the archives of the CCM for future generations of (Moroccan) researchers, audiences and filmmakers.
The TMC project runs to a close in December 2018. We have had three amazing years where we met and interviewed many Moroccan film professionals. Our last big event in 2018 was the Morocco in Motionconference in Edinburgh, during the Africa in Motion film festival, our amazing partners. We had 15 Moroccan film professionals attending the festival and conference, and reports on their presence and contributions will follow. This blog entry focuses on the young filmmakers that were present, in particular documentary activist Nadir Bouhmouch and animator Sofia El Khyari.
Next to the established filmmakers we were lucky enough to invite to the conference and festival (such as Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, Hakim Belabbes and Farida Benlyazid), we also found it very important to make sure our project at large has been both inclusive and supportive of young filmmakers and young academics. It is the young filmmakers who need support and attention, as they are challenging the status quo and renewing Moroccan cinema from the inside. What stands out to us is that these young filmmakers are investing in non-mainstream forms and genres leading to very exciting developments in Moroccan cinema.
The project has not only offered the opportunity to two young women filmmakers Mahassine El Hachadi and Saida Janjague to spend a term at the London Film School where they developed ideas and networked with other young filmmakers, we have also from the start of the project admired the work of Nadir Bouhmouch – a young filmmaker activist and independent academic who devotes his life to making films outside of the establishment and in opposition to the dominant politics of the CCM. Nadir has also taken part in both conferences we organised, speaking about women’s roles in cinema in Morocco when we held the conference in Marrakech in December 2016, and about the increasing impact of the spirit of neoliberalism in cinema at the conference in October 2018.
His films, especially My Makhzen and Me(2012) and Timnadin for the Rif (2017) have garnered considerable attention internationally, not just for their quality in terms of visual and aesthetic power, but especially for their statements of protest and solidarity with the Moroccan lower classes: farmers, workers, and poor urbanites. My Makhzen and Me is an activist document of the struggle of the February 20 Youth Movement and a daring, direct critique of the Moroccan Makhzen (a popular term for ‘the State’). Likewise, in Timnadin for the Rif Bouhmouch focuses on protest against the unfair distribution of wealth and the neglect of the lower classes in the desert of southern Morocco, where poetry expresses solidarity with the uprising in the Rif. He told me about his work on his new documentary about the longest protest action in the Sahara Desert: a 6-year struggle by the Amazigh population of Imider against the pollution by a silver mining corporation of their already scarce drinking water. It not only portrays a long process and protest, the film is also a labour of love and passion, with Nadir struggling to finish the film on his low budget and without support from any funding institution within Morocco. But he is being encouraged by interest in his work from abroad.
He and his team are confident the film will be finished soon with the support he receives from friends and his strong determination to get it out. As a research team, we really hope that the exchanges with producers, distributors and festival organisers at the conference and throughout the project have enabled him to speak to and – importantly – be heard by those with power and money, so that he can successfully change the future of documentary and freedom of speech in Moroccan cinema. He said he hopes he gets more such opportunities to speak up, and found the platform of the project ‘necessary, and even urgent.’
The Transnational Moroccan Cinema project has been funded by the AHRC, and their funding has enabled us to do lots of events over the three years. We have held big conferences, smaller workshops, film screenings, film festival panels, and have been able to visit a large number of Morocco-based festivals in order to discover more about the Moroccan film scene. At one of these festivals, FICAM in Meknès, I had the pleasure to meet Sofia El Khyari and see her first film Ayam. It is only three minutes long but very powerful – as it deals with the love between generations of women over the course of a short tea ceremony.
Sofia was educated in France and in the UK, and has had some success on the festival circuit with Ayam, winning prizes not only in Morocco but also in France and further afield. She recently finished her graduation film for her Master’s degree at the Royal College of Arts in London. The stunning The Porous Body(2018) explores the outer limits of the body, searching for the space where the skin touches its surroundings and the level of porousness of skin, while also exploring the power of water and the sea as a symbol for womanhood and the subconscious. The film artistically and experimentally deals with space, place and belonging, and with girlhood simultaneously developing into, embracing and rejecting womanhood. The technique of animated watercolour and using watery colours when depicting events and figures outside of the water, interspersed with live-action in filming scenes under water, challenges our ideas of perception and representation. Sofia describes the film as a poetic meditation, and it certainly makes the viewer think and the skin tingle as it increases an awareness of the outer layers of the human skin.
Sofia told me she was excited to be part of the project and happy that she was invited to screen Ayam at Africa in Motion and speak at the conference, alongside Farida Benlyazid and Lamia Chraibi. The panel she was on at the conference discussed the status of women in Morocco and in the film business at large, and was chaired by our very own fearless woman, Flo. Sofia’s contributions as a young, strong and experimental filmmaker were central to the realistic vision of the future of women in Moroccan cinema, and she told me she felt like she was part of something that increasingly interests her. Being transnational in her education, her knowledge and experience of Moroccan cinema was limited, but meeting inspiring women like Lamia and Farida has ignited her exploration of the Moroccan film world.
The project that we have run over the past three years has seen us meet the big names in Moroccan cinema and those well-established, both historically and contemporarily. But for me, what has stood out and what has really excited me is the energy of the non-mainstream film festivals, and especially the strength and the vibrancy of the young filmmakers and academics I met. I cannot wait to see Nadir Bouhmouch’s new film and explore more of Moroccan animation – especially young women’s roles – such as Sofia El Khyari’s, in the future of animation.
On Sunday 28 October 2018, as the midday sun was starting to dispel the morning fog and entering the tall windows of our conference room, we convened a meeting of formidable Moroccan women: Farida Benlyazid, filmmaker who also was the first woman producer in Morocco (when she produced Jillali Ferhati’s A Breech in the wall, 1977); Lamia Chraibi, producer extraordinaire of, among other transnational films, Narjis Nejjar’s Stateless (2018), Hicham Lasri’s Jahilya (2017), Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas (2016); and Sofia El Khyari, whose short animation Ayam (2017) has won many international awards and was screened on Tuesday 30 November as part of the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland.
The speakers had different takes on the complex question of Moroccan women’s cinema, its history, its situation today (we noted a sharp increase in the number of women filmmakers since the late 1990s), and how complicated it was to enter and find one’s place as a woman in the world of cinema in Morocco. Farida Benlyazid reminded her audience, however, that Moroccan cinema has had female participants from the start, as illustrated by the presence of two of them at the very first national film festival in Morocco: Farida Bourquia as director and Farida Benlyazid as producer.
Lamia Chraibi first credited les grands (great filmmakers) – in particular Narjis Nejjar – for her ability to gradually find her “place” in the Moroccan world of cinema, as she created her own niche in transnational film production. Then she described her work as a woman producer in Morocco not so much as a challenge as an achievement, to be reached through lots of hard work, of course, but also through will power accompanied by a unique sense of exhilaration when working on beautiful, worthwhile projects.
Sofia El Khyari identified a similar irrepressible drive to work in cinema that propelled her forward with such urgency that it helped her convince herself as well as her family that animation, her true calling, was the only career she could possibly embrace. The three women agreed that the minuscule number of women in key positions in the institutions of Moroccan cinema found a variety of explanations, and that upward mobility in the sector was only possible for women from the upper classes, who were educated and usually had studied abroad, even if, of course, there were notable exceptions to this unspoken rule.
Once the background picture of women in cinema had thus been laid out, the round table welcomed a lively dialogue with the audience, replete with shared questions and comments from practitioners of cinema in Morocco and elsewhere (e.g. Nadir Bouhmouch or Hakim Belabbes, as well as Lidia Peralta), Moroccan academics and critics (e.g. Rachid Naïm or Hamid Aïdouni), postgraduate students (e.g. Lamyâa Achary or Amine Belabbes). The status of women in Morocco’s contemporary society was discussed as well as the sharp divides that exist amongst women as to how they reacted to the reform of the personal code – the mudawwana – in 2004: some of them demonstrated against it, seeing it as erring away from the message of the Quran, while others applauded the rights it conferred on women.
The immense divide between the (remote) rural areas and the urban centers was also evoked as one of the primary factors that slowed down the awareness of young girls. Of particular interest were the exchanges on integrated misogyny on the one hand and on the various interpretations and consequences of the #MeToo movement in Morocco, on the other. Again, issues around education broadly construed were used to explain the low percentage of women able to produce films, and the small number of women occupying decision-making positions in the institutions of cinema, who could affect the present and future of Moroccan cinema. In particular, participants lamented not only the lack of schooling that accounts for the high rate of illiteracy among girls and women in the kingdom, but also the role-models offered by mothers who raise their daughters at home to serve their fathers and brothers; what little girls see on TV; what women see in Moroccan films. In the end, Lamia Chraibi asked: “what do we[filmmakers and producers] give the audience to see?”
The discussion thus laid bare a variety of paradoxes such as: filmmakers need to make films that will reach (entertain?) their audience while also playing a more proactive, political part in raising consciousness in Moroccan women and men; if the hitherto red lines of class and gender seem to be slightly blurrier and able to be transgressed by young determined young women, the structure of the cinema-making apparatus has not moved an inch; a prerequisite for women to enter the world of Moroccan cinema still seems to entail leaving Morocco to study and/or gain experience abroad.
Perhaps what was most heartwarming in this roundtable was the openness of the dialogue and the quality of the listening by every participant to their interlocutors. The conversation went on informally over lunch afterwards, as little clusters formed, shared stories and laughed.
In that early postcolonial Moroccan cinema is not unlike early French cinema (e.g. Alice Guy-Blaché was a filmmaker from 1896 on; Germaine Dulac who wrote about film at the turn of the century, directed her first one in 1915…).
Moroccan cinema is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. It was the highlight of the 19th edition of the National Film Festival in Tangier (9-18 March 2018). Something else was visible in Tangier: Moroccan cinema is a house divided against itself.
Attended by the 4-member TMC team, the festival showcased the diversity of Moroccan cinema today by screening over 30 long and short films produced over the last 12 months. Films ranged from the finely executed (House in the Fields,Volubilis), the experimental (Jahiliya), the hollow and prententious (Razzia, Burnout, The Howl of the Soul), to the avowedly simple and popular (Korsa,Lahnech). The annual festival also revealed some cracks and structural problems in the edifice of Moroccan cinema. This should in no way be interpreted as meaning that this divided house will not stand for a few more decades.
Born out of the ashes of colonial cinema and the urgency of nation-building following the country’s independence in 1956, Moroccan cinema has grown spectacularly over time so much so it resembles its old self less and less every year. The identity of Moroccan cinema today is multifaceted; it has no single direction or common style. This diversity was there for all to witness during the national film festival in rainy old Tangier in March. The first category of films on show consisted of ‘made-for-TV’ comedies and dramas meant for a Moroccan audience first and foremost. The veteran actor and filmmaker Abdellah Ferkous (b. 1965) was at it again with his widely appreciated Korsa (2018). The mere presence of Ferkous in the male lead role of the film was enough for the movie to get the audience hooked to their seats. The road-movie comedy follows on the footsteps of the previous Ferkous box office hit El Ferrouj (2015).Korsauses the same recipe for success by tackling topical societal issues from below whilst shying from technical experimentation.
The second comedy is set in Rabat, which has recently become a familiar site in Morocco cinema. Even though Lahnech had been released and widely watched in national cinema theatres since early December 2017, it drew huge crowds to French-owned Mégarama’s Tangier multiplex for two simultaneous screenings in the late evening. The film uses a constellation of popular actors in the main roles including Aziz Dadas and the eternally young Majdouline Idrissi. Dadas plays the central role as a fake traffic warden. The actor is a popular face on Moroccan television and cinema. Much like Ferkous, he is perceived as weld cha’ab(lit. ‘son of the people’), hence his popularity and ability to represent the majority of Moroccans. Class is increasingly becoming a dominant lens through which Moroccans perceive themselves on screen.
The other category of films at the national film festival was made of ‘world cinema’ products clearly made to satisfy international audience tastes and hopefully some domestic ones as well. This second category is sometimes labeled ‘festival cinema’. It is frequently attacked in the local media and by Morocco-base intellectuals for some of its films’ militantly exotic and occasionally Orientalist framing of Moroccan culture and society. Film critics love to hate them with few exceptions. However, these films are often appreciated at festivals even in Morocco, where they usually win first prizes including at the national film fest, thanks to technical quality and aesthetic accomplishment.
The film which won most prizes, including the Grand Prix, in Tangier this year is Volubilisby Faouzi Bensaïdi. The film has been widely acclaimed by film critics in Morocco since its premiere in Rabat in November 2017. As the Paris-based Bensaïdi admitted in an interview with the TMC team on the morning of the prize announcement day, the film is one of cinematic maturity and has been made with a wider audience in mind. However, Bensaïdi warned us that the next film would be like his previous essay works prior to Volubilis.
Other remarkable films of this second category on show at the national film festival this year were House in the Fields (2017) by Tala Hadid. The documentary lovingly chronicles the everyday and breathtaking natural beauty of an Amazigh village in the High Atlas. The central characters are Fatima and Khadija. The former is getting ready to be married to a village youth who works and lives away in Casablanca. The film portrays the characters and their environment with much love and a subtlety that is often lacking in films about the Atlas mountains. It should have own more than the festival’s Editing Prize. Hadid’s first feature film The Narrow Frame of Midnight won the festival’s Grand Prix in 2015. Another film in this category which is also partly set in the High Atlas is Nabil Ayouch’s much mediatised Razzia(2017). It hugely disappointed a large section of the festival audience due to its runaway narrative fragmentation and reduction of Morocco to a few clichés (backward Berbers, Muslim fanatics, anti-Semites and prostitutes) to satisfy the average western viewer’s image of Morocco. More successful and appreciated was Narjiss Nejjar’s fourth feature film Apatride(2018). The story of a 34-year old woman bent on finding her Algerian mother from whom she was separated when 45,000 Moroccans were banished from Algeria following Morocco’s annexation of the Spanish-occupied Sahara in 1975, Apatridewon the Production Prize for Lamia Chraïbi. Chraibi also won the same prize for Jahiliya(2018) by Hicham Lasri, who reaped the Director’s Prize.
It is clear that the type of audience the filmmakers have in mind has come to define the look and nature of Moroccan films. The CCM has encouraged this division since the early 2000s by awarding funding to both popularand festivalcamps of Moroccan cinema. The commercial films like Korsaand Lahnechare meant to entertain domestic audiences and thus keep film houses in business. The arthouse and/or transnational films like Volubilisare there to represent Morocco in the international scene by featuring and hopefully winning prizes at global film festivals. Despite this policy, the CCM and filmmakers in both camps have entertained the desire to speak to all audiences and therefore create a more cohesive Moroccan cinema. This explains the popular edge in Bensaïdi’s Volubilis. The film has not yet be released in national cinemas, but it is not likely to do outstandingly even though it is significantly more accessible than the director’s previous works. No film has succeeded in satisfying international and national audiences at the same since Nabil Ayouch’s Ali Zaoua(2000). The CCM has not been able to help. No one seems to know exactly the success formula, including Ayouch who has not able to replicate his rare accomplishment. Hence the sense of division and loss of direction in Moroccan cinema. Filmmakers will have to keep trying hard to bridge the gap between Moroccan and international viewers and points of view. Meanwhile, Ferkous will go on making his popular comedies and Bensaïdi his cinephilic essays.
Between the two categories, a lot of films fall through the cracks. They are forgotten almost as soon as they are made. They neither win prizes internationally nor attract filmgoers at home. Unfortunately, this represents the third and major category of Moroccan films today. The CCM needs to find a way to reform this part of Moroccan cinema’s divided house at 60.
Aside from last week’s discussed feature-length films that attract full audiences and long discussions with filmmakers, sometimes serious and sometimes dominated by the kids in the room, we also followed the exciting experiments that were showcased in the short film competition at FICAM. In the second batch of shorts screened on Sunday evening, we saw the usual (great!) French, Canadian and Croatian work, but to be completely honest, we were there specifically for the Moroccan short, Ayam / The Days, by Sofia El Khyari.
On occasion, the festival has included screenings of local productions in the past; for example – as Paula Callus has shown, in 2002 Hamid Semlali’s L’oiseau de l’Atlas (The Bird of the Atlas, 2002) was screened. Semlali’s ten-minute film was exceptional on two counts: firstly as a rare example of a local animation screened at an international festival, and secondly as a case of a Moroccan animation receiving funding from the CCM (100,000 dinars). But these films are rare, and so the hunger for Moroccan animations is huge at FICAM. The excitement about Sofia El Khyari’s film was palpable as she introduced the film.
The director of the festival was equally excited about the presence of a Moroccan film in the short film competition, and Alexis Hunot, doing the introduction to the screening of the selection, encouraged everyone in the room to vote on their audience voting slip, adding that of course they would be expecting to see many vote for Sofia’s film.
Born in Casablanca in 1992, Sofia El Khyari left her native Morocco for Paris after she finished school. She trained in creative industries management and taught herself animation with various workshops in France. She spent time in China and then settled in London where she is now pursuing a master’s degree in animation at the Royal College of Arts in London, where Ayam was made. Ayam uses mixed-media paper cut-out, stop-motion, acrylic paint and soft pastels, ink and crayon on brown paper in an animation that combines elements of old school Asian anime films as well as distinct Moroccan aesthetics such as soft contours, bright colours, decorative backgrounds, geometrical shapes and organically flowing lines and calligraphy.
The filmmaker told her audience that the film is inspired by her mother and grandmother, and their love for one another and for her, and on the anecdotal nature of conversations, stories and history-telling in her house, in particular during the traditional tea ceremony of Eid Al Adha. Indeed, El Khyari seems to be mostly interested in women’s particular perceptions of the world, as her previous work, available here, elaborately shows. Curious about everything cosmopolitan, she develops a mixed dream world where the female figure is queen.
In Ayam this becomes very clear, and in this film the main inspiration is women of older generations: her mother and grandmother. The film is dedicated to the female characters in her life, and depicts in three and a half short minutes, the preparation for the tea ceremony. Grandmother and mother talk about the glasses being clean, the tea hot and the table being set, as the young daughter remarks she thought that grandmother could not read because she has never been to school. It quickly becomes clear that grandmother is from an age where women were not encouraged to go to school, but that she was pragmatic enough to make sure she learnt reading and writing on her own terms, from her older brother, when he came home from school. Likewise, the mother figure shows how having a daughter now is crucial to her own role as a woman, and she has sacrificed her own ambitions to ensure her daughter can go to school and encourage her to get the best grades she can. In return, the granddaughter shows her love for her mother and grandmother by representing them in a stunning short documentary tale of cross-generational solidarity and warmth. Especially in the subtitles, which are encased in elaborately decorated frames, and in the calligraphic elements that come to life in the film and show the beauty and importance of Arabic script. In an interview, Sofia told me she thought long about what to do with the subtitles, as she studies in Britain and is aware of the dislike of British audiences for subtitles. Her tutor recommended she make a feature of the subtitles, as part of the mixed-media aesthetic of the film. Sofia then sought inspiration in ancient Arab storytelling, the 1001 Nightsin particular, and created paper-framed text for the subtitles, an inherent part of the beautiful aesthetics on screen.
This interest in the written word is also reflected in her use of calligraphy in the abstract art backgrounds of the otherwise figurative depictions of the women. This is especially interesting if we read it in the context of Laura Marks’ theory on calligraphic animation, and the importance of calligraphy in Arab animation at large. As Marks says: ‘many artists are bringing Islamic textual aesthetics to contemporary media art, and thus they are enriching this art’s qualities of latency, performativity, and transformation’ (2011). Marks showed how one of the most popular non-figurative Islamic arts, calligraphy, in many respects is in itself animated: its written words or single letters encapsulate life and movement in their fluidity. Calligraphic artworks, while they do not depict living forms, do embody the movement of life itself. ‘Watching calligraphic animation, we feel empathy with the letters as they swoop free of their symbolic constraints and become animated, take on (non-organic) life’ (2011). In this view, letters have inherent meaning: the meaning is there behind the surface of the animated image, in the code.
Ayam has already done the rounds at some of the most important animation film festivals in the world. It also screened at the Cardiff Animation Festival in Wales this past week (19-22 April). It won the audience award at FICAM in Meknès. The filmmaker’s parents were present and obviously very proud. Sofia said she wanted her parents to come along to the screening, as her journey towards becoming an animation artist has been a long and hesitant one, because family and friends have worried about the financial viability of a career in the arts and animation. Yet she deeply believes in the value of the animated image, and has done so since she was only 15 years old. The animator dedicates time to all aspects of her animated art: she composes the music and sings for her own films, she explores different media and art forms, and harvests inspiration from all over the world. She is aware of the practical obstacles to young Moroccan filmmakers in general, and animators in particular, but hopes to continue to meet the right people who she can enthuse about her stories and styles in the future. She is currently working on her graduation project from the Royal College of Art, which will focus on the relationship between women and water. She is researching specifically Arab women that can be an example to her art and her ambitions and while she wants to work in Morocco, she is mostly interested in international co-production in order to maintain the inspiration flowing beyond borders and in order to maximise other areas’ increasing interest in funding and supporting new and young animating artists.
Sofia also recognised, in this context, that one of the things FICAM does so well is organise workshops and presentations, and network opportunities for students and young artists. It is very well-organised, timetabled and accessible for children as well as students and the wider public. Quite the relief after the “private” festival that is the FNF in Tangier, where the public is not allowed anywhere near the cinema. The amount of young Moroccan students of animation, walking around at FICAM with their portfolios under their arms is exciting to see.
That’s why, after one of the best presentations of the festival, by Rachid Naim from the University of Safi, on the representation of the Arab in American animation, the discussion’s turn to the lack of Moroccan animation was so surprising to me. Firstly, Rachid’s presentation was eye-opening. Not in the sense that he broached a subject that we are all very familiar with, namely the racism in Disney’s Aladdin and the problematic depiction of the “bad” Arab in Hollywood, but in the sense that he gave me, personally, a fresh new insight into his vision of Orientalism, with references to so many others than Edward Said. He elaborated on the creation of the 1001 Nightsand their origins, not as Arab tales but as being from all over the Middle and Far East, or the invention of Ali Baba and Sindbad by the chroniclers, French and British. That these characters are ‘good’ guys in the 1001 Nightsand become bad guys in Popeyeand Bugs Bunnyfilms adds interesting materials to Jack Shaheen’s famous work on Hollywood’s “Reel Bad Arabs.” The discussion after Rachid’s talk turned very animated when Alexis Hunot pointed out that there is no Moroccan animation. Clearly Sofia El Khyari’s film contradicts this throwaway statement, and the presence of so many ambitious students does as well. I was itching to point this out to him, and so did the students. My good friend Paula Callus has of course also written a rich chapter on Moroccan animation in the edited collection on Arab animation, so there certainly is more than Alexis acknowledged. I wonder if it was a tactic on his part to encourage the students to really pursue their animation dreams. FICAM is certainly the right place to do so, as it is one of the only platforms in Morocco for animated cinema. Long long long may it live on and celebrate animation from Morocco!
Laura Marks, ‘Calligraphic Animation: Documenting the Invisible’, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 6, 3 (2011), pp. 307-323.
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