Reflections on the 3rd International Film School Festival (FIDEC), Tetouan

 

Between 20-24 November 2017, two members of the TMC team were delighted to participate in the 3rd edition of the International Film School Festival (FIDEC) in Tetouan. Flo Martin was invited as a member of the festival’s jury – working alongside filmmakers Farida Benlyazid and Ghassan Salhab and Dr. Walid El Khabach – whilst Will Higbee attended the festival and took part in a panel with members of the London Film School (partners of the TMC project, who were also receiving a special award at this year’s festival).

Hamid Aidouni

Now in its third year, the organisers of FIDEC selected more than 30 shorts from film schools in over 17 countries (including Mali, Lebanon, Austria, Mexico, Belgium, Qatar, Finland the UK and, of course Morocco) to compete in this year’s competition. It was especially pleasing to see a strong number of African filmmakers represented at the festival – an indication that the ‘south-south’ collaboration between Moroccan cinema and Sub-Saharan Africa, visible in the production initiatives currently promoted by the CCM, is also successfully operating among budding African filmmakers. The quality of films in competition was generally high, drawing on a broad range of narrative and documentary film, as well as animation and experimental film art from a truly international array of film schools from across the globe.

The Jury

As a member of the festival jury, Flo’s take on the range of films at the festival is largely reflected in the various prizes awarded by the jury (for more information see here). For Will, speaking independently of the jury, particular highlights from the films in competition included: La Saison du Silence, Tizian Büchi’s beautifully observed study of life in a remote French farming community – a documentary that brings slow cinema to the Haut-Jura; Les Colombes inquiètes, a documentary by Zeynep Danisman that fearlessly combines the personal and political to powerful effect in exposing the ongoing human rights violations that lead to the political assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Turkey in 2007 and continue to be felt today ; Hombre negro sin identificar, Javier Extremera’s harrowing but highly original take (particularly in its use of sound and image) on the personal cost for young African men caught up in Europe’s migrant crisis and, finally, Welcome, an assured and taut fiction film by Balázs Dudás (part social realist drama, part thriller) that explores the effect on a young Hungarian man of his involvement in the illegal trafficking of immigrants into ‘Fortress Europe’. This selection of films, as indeed most films programmed at the festival, clearly showed that many in this new generation of filmmakers focus on issues of migration, human rights, and on the inequalities (and real human cost) created by neo-liberal globalization.

Of note also, two Moroccan documentaries by students: Fayrouz: day of Glory, an engaging portrait of a Moroccan schoolteacher in a small village who is active in street theatre and harbours ambitions to swap teaching for a career on stage and screen, and Le Jeune homme et la mer, a documentary about a fisherman, that employed state-of-the-art digital camera technology to stunning visual effect in its underwater photography. Both these films were very well received by the jury and the festival audience.

Student Filmmakers

In addition to the films in competition, the festival programme included a series of short film programmes celebrating the rich history of the London Film School and that of Le Fresnoy, the French national studio of contemporary art that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. Also included was a section entitled ‘DocsTetouan’: a special selection of films produced by students studying on the Documentary Filmmaking Masters at Tetouan, which illustrated the strength of Moroccan documentary talent emerging from this film practice programme.

Running alongside its screenings, the festival also brought together students, filmmakers and researchers for a series of masterclasses at the School of Arts and Humanities, Tetouan University – where the Masters programme in documentary cinema is led by Prof. Hamid Aidouni, the festival director and a key figure in the cultural and cinematic life of Tetouan. This year the festival masterclasses offered a range of experiences and perspectives from Michel Serceau – French researcher, educator, festival organizer, and author of numerous key publications on the language of film, authorship and (of course) Arab cinema; Egyptian director Sayed Said and Lebanese screenwriter, director and producer, Ghassan Salhab who both who provided insights into their respective filmmaking practices. For me, the highlight was the masterclass delivered by Ghassan Salhab, who eloquently and passionately explored the personal and wider artistic impulses at work in his latest film, L’encre de chine – a powerful, poetic visual essay on questions of space and identity. Prompted by the threat of immanent eviction from his current apartment in Beirut, Ghassan used his film to re-visit locations with an intense personal significance for the filmmaker/artist and to explore his own mixed heritage as the son of Lebanese parents who grew up in Senegal. The argument put forward by Ghassan is that ‘place’ is as important for understanding who we are as the over-exposed and often over-generalized concept of ‘identity’. The audience at the masterclass were fortunate to view advanced excerpts from the film still in the process of being edited. Though he had previously directed feature films with far larger budgets, and involving a cast and crew of scores of individuals, Ghassan chose to shoot his most recent film on his iPhone and edit it on his laptop. He shared with the audience the good news that the distribution rights for the film had been acquired by Franco-German TV channel Arte on the very morning of the masterclass! His message to the students was therefore a direct and inspiring one: with creativity, commitment and drive, it is possible to make the film you want. The technological means to do so have never been more accessible.

Will Higbee

Finally, running alongside the masterclasses were sessions with representatives from Le Fresnoy and the London Film School (official partners of the TMC project). Participants in the LFS panel discussed the structure, educational strategy and film education philosophy of the LFS in relation to the various programmes in Filmmaking, Screenwriting, International Film Business and PhD in Film Practice offered at the School. The panel included: Gisli Snaer, director of studies at the LFS, Dr Jamie Chambers and Aegina Brahim – both LFS graduates whose recent films were screened at the festival – and Prof Will Higbee (PI of the TMC project and academic lead for the Exeter – LFS partnership). This was the first, and we hope not the last, official collaboration between FIDEC, the faculty at Tetouan and the London Film School. LFS Director of Studies, Gisli Snaer, was impressed with what he saw at both the faculty and the festival – and has proposed that the LFS nominate the MA in Documentary Filmmaking programme led by Prof. Hamid Aidouni for membership of CILECT (the International Association of Film and Television Schools).

On behalf of the TMC project, Flo Martin and Will Higbee would like to thank the entire organisational team from FIDEC, and colleagues at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Tetouan University for the welcome they extended to Flo and Will, as well as colleagues from the LFS for this high-quality festival. Above all, we would also like to acknowledge the talent and vision of Professor Hamid Aidouni, the driving force behind FIDEC. We very much hope to return for the 4th edition of the festival later this year.

Will Higbee

Ouarzazate Movie at IDFA 2017: A Revelation of Continued Cinematic Imperialism in the Moroccan Desert

 

Moroccan films and documentaries are currently really well-represented at film festivals around the world. The TMC team of course screened Aïta and Trances at Africa in Motion (see Will Higbee’s blog); the Kolkata Film Festival in India screened seven contemporary Moroccan films; Volubilis by Faouzi Bensaïdi was screened at Venice and in Carthage and will doubtless visit many festivals worldwide this year; and Razzia by Nabil Ayouch has been selected as Morocco’s entry in the pre-selections for Best Foreign Film at the 2018 Oscars. And these are of course just a few examples: we all know there are some very exciting films to be screened at some of the largest festivals in the world next year.

IDFA 2017

My most recent festival experience was of six MENA films at IDFA, the world’s most famous international film festival dedicated to documentaries, in Amsterdam. It is one of the most enjoyable, laid-back and convivial festivals I know and I like to visit it every year, mostly because it has always been really good at representing the transnational nature of the documentary industry. From its inception, this festival has had a focus not only on Dutch or European and American docs but also on African, Arab and Latin American, Asian and Australasian films. It really is one of those festivals that make genuine attempts to be all-inclusive and diverse. It avoids red carpet events, focuses on networking events and meetings, and opens up doors both to the industry and to a very loyal and enthusiastic local audience, through affordable ticketing and accreditation. The only downside to the festival, from my perspective, is that it is located in one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

One of my highlights this year was the screening of two modest Moroccan films: Ouarzazate Movie and House in the Fields, on Thursday 23 November. I especially liked Ouarzazate Movie by Ali Essafi, a film from 2001, primarily perhaps because Ouarzazate has been in the news recently, with Noureddine Sail pointing out that Ourzazate as a film location encounters serious issues due to its isolation. In an interview published in English on MENAFM he said: “The problems that hinder film production in Ouarzazate aren’t related to cinema as much as they’re related to the region itself. The region is isolated. There aren’t enough roads to get here. There aren’t enough airline flights. This isolation creates problems. Some international producers come here only because they’re compelled to due to the location’s history with Lawrence of Arabia and other famous films like The Mummy and Gladiator. They say there’s no place where they can film better than this one. We can say that the region of Ouarzazate is like an open studio. But once the issues of transportation put pressure on producers, many of them look elsewhere.” Even as the CCM is now focusing its attention on creating extra incentives through tax rebates and an increasingly professional crew locally, the issue of isolation and a continued lack of communication hamper the studios’ potential.

Checking out the Extras

In the film, we see how foreign film production companies come to this isolated place in the desert, working with local companies such as Dune Films, for setting and location, with or without production incentives. The film focuses on the methods used by these companies to communicate with the local population who are looking for jobs and see themselves as an inherent part of the local film history.

The recruitment process is brutal. The local people are all too willing to be part of a Hollywood production, and they have memories of working on Lawrence of Arabia, or with Paolo Pasolini. One older man in particular reminisces on being Pasolini’s personal assistant and the interviewers become really interested in Pasolini’s attitude towards the man.

Watching Films together

He smiles and gives nothing away! The filmmaker also shows the men and women – who are or have been extras in the past – footage of the films they have been in. It becomes clear that they have never seen these films, but it is also exciting to see how they recognise themselves, neighbours, parents, and friends, as people with no specific role but on-screen nonetheless.

Ali Essafi films these hopefuls coming together and competing with one another on a grandstand, putting themselves on display to American, French, Italian and Canadian film producers who have determined beforehand exactly which skin colour, sex and age they need. They survey the crowd as if they were visiting a cattle market. The lucky few to be selected then go on to work crazy hours for a pittance. Women and children are set entirely apart from the men and are treated with more contempt, dismissal and a total lack of empathy by the recruiters than the men, who seem to have formed a hierarchy, with some more confident about their chances precisely because they have been recruited so many times in the past, as they fit a stereotypical image of the generic desert dweller: old, tall and lean, face marked with deep wrinkles and the characteristic beard.

Wardrobe tests

Essafi reveals how communication between production companies internally and between production companies and extras is entirely negligible and one-directional, with no regard whatsoever for the rights and circumstances of their employees, and health hazards are ignored—it’s clearly only about the money, for the foreign companies, not for the locals. Nevertheless, some of the men who have been able to return to several roles on these visiting films have been able to buy or build their houses from their very low wages: each time a pay check comes in they can finish another wall, ceiling or door.

Ouarzazate Movie shows all too clearly that while the films may look stunning on our silver screens, and that foreign productions do indeed come to the studios in Ouarzazate, Saïl has a good point about the actual situation for the local talent and life behind the scenes being entirely neglected and underdeveloped. Once you understand this film, you will look at the famous blockbusters with very different eyes. Western imperialism still reigns unashamedly supreme in the Ouarzazate desert.

Ali Essafi

Ali Essafi was born in Morocco in 1963. He studied psychology in France before entering the world of filmmaking. His films include: General, Here We Are (1997); The Silence of the Beet Fields (1998); Ouarzazate Movie (2001); and Shikhat’s Blues (2004). He lives and works in Morocco and Brazil.

 

Stefanie Van de Peer

CALL and RESPONSE: the transnational reach of the Moroccan music documentary

For the second year running, the TMC research project sponsored a panel at the Africa in Motion film festival. This year the focus was Moroccan music documentaries and we were honoured to welcome two of the most important directors who have worked in this area: Izza Génini and Ahmed El Maanouni. The Africa in Motion festival has always tried, wherever possible, to offer its audiences more than a simple screening of a film.

Omar Afif

The TMC team were therefore delighted for the opportunity to develop a ‘Call and Response’ workshop on Moroccan music documentary, including live music from the talented Moroccan musician Omar Bin Afif.

The workshop began with a presentation from TMC project Co-Investigator Prof Florence Martin, providing insights into the cultural significance and diversity of music in Moroccan culture, as well as the role of directors such as El Maanouni and Génini in preserving this rich musical heritage through their documentaries. The presence of Omar meant that those participating in the workshop were fortunate enough to have a live demonstration of the various styles of music discussed by Flo.

Omar serving up a treat

Following a break for mint tea and Moroccan sweets and pastries, also prepared by Omar – is there no end to this man’s talents?!?! – the audience were then treated to an ‘in-conversation’ with the filmmakers, chaired by TMC Principal Investigator Prof Will Higbee. Both Izza and Ahmed spoke of their passion for the music in their films, their professional collaboration (Izza was also the producer of El Maanouni’s cult classic Trances) as well as the power of music and cinema to cross cultures and engage audiences. A memorable afternoon for all present ended with an extended performance by Omar.

Later that day, the TMC research team along with the filmmakers moved on to the Filmhouse for a double bill of Moroccan music documentaries, followed by a Q&A.

The first film to be screened was the short documentary Aïta (1987), directed by Izza Genini. Aïta is the first film in a ten-part series of documentaries on Moroccan music made by Izza between 1987-1992 entitled Maroc: corps et ame / Morocco Body and Soul. The film’s title refers to a style of popular music in Morocco, associated with the Cheikat – female troubadours who travel across Morocco singing at festivals and moussems, combining song and dance to recount epic events from Moroccan history and turning their cries and sways into emotionally-charged songs and performances. Aïta follows Fatna Bent el Hocine – one of the most popular and celebrated Cheikhats in the history of Moroccan music. The film itself is structured around performances by the singers and musicians at the Moussem of Moulay Abdullah – a traditional tribal gathering involving horse-racing, feasts, music and dancing. However, the moments that Génini captures of the singers between performances (off-stage, relaxing, rehearsing) are as important to the film as the performances themselves.

Ahmed and Izza at the workshop

Originally a distributor and producer of feature films, Genini found herself making documentaries as a way to explore her Moroccan past. In this way, the documentary project of which Aïta was a part is an important act of safeguarding a collective cultural memory – a means of archiving Moroccan music and cultural traditions. However, for Genini, a Moroccan Jew who left Morocco as a young woman to study in Paris, the city she made her home, the music documentaries are also an intensely personal creative act; a way for her to connect with the country of her birth and her own cultural heritage.

The second film on the TMC double bill was Trances, the feature-length documentary directed by Ahmed El Maanouni and produced by Izza Génini that has achieved cult status in Morocco and internationally since its release in the early 1980s. The film follows the massively popular Moroccan group Nass el Ghiwane, who combined the rock and roll swagger of The Rolling Stones with a deep understanding and respect of the diverse musical and poetic heritage of Morocco.

Trances is the second feature-length film directed by Ahmed el Maanouni (he also worked as a cinematographer) and followed the international success of Alyam Alyam (1978) which was the first Moroccan film to be represented at Cannes and win the Un Certain Regard prize at the Director’s Fortnight, as well as many awards at festivals across the world. In a career spanning almost 40 years, Ahmed El Maanouni has established himself as one of the most important Moroccan filmmakers, and a passionate advocate and supporter of Moroccan cinema and a new generation of Moroccan filmmakers, working across documentary and fiction, most recently releasing the popular comedy Fadma (2017) for which he was given the award for best director at the National Film Festival in Tangier earlier this year.

Trances mixes concert footage (from Carthage in Tunisia; Agadir and Essaouira in Morocco; and Paris), filmed interviews with the band and black-and-white archival footage. However, the film is much more than a concert film, as it shows the cultural and socio-political importance of the group Nass el Ghiwane to a generation of young Moroccans – as well as the way that the group turned away from the often-romantic musical influences of the Eastern part of the Arab world to focus on the diverse sounds, instruments and musical and poetic traditions of Morocco. Crucially, the songs were sung in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) to ecstatic young audiences, who could relate not only to the message of the music and its traditions but also the language in which it was delivered.

Q&A after Aïta and Trances

The film has been a huge success internationally, garnering plaudits and attention at festivals across the world. As such it also had the honour of being the first film selected by Martin Scorsese to be restored as part of his World Cinema Foundation / World Cinema project. Trances captures the excitement and energy of Nass el Ghiwane in concert as well as exploring the diverse origins of the band’s music, their desire to re-engage a new generation of Moroccans to a music and poetry from which they may have felt disconnected, as well as exploring the social political resonances of the band’s music. While Nass el Ghiwane may have often played down suggestions of political messages in their work, the power of the images and editing of Ahmed’s film, juxtaposing the band’s music with contemporary footage of Morocco and archival material from the colonial period show the socio-political resonance that the band obviously had for its young audience.

Speaking eloquently at the Q&A after the film, both Izza Genini and Ahmed el Maanouni considered the impact of the film on their careers as well as the cultural and political significance of Trances in the history of Moroccan cinema. Izza told us how she worked with Maanouni on the film, about a band she had been a fan of for a long time, and Maanouni confirmed the continued importance of the band and Izza’s work. Maanouni finished by suggesting that, in selecting the film as the first to be restored and distributed via the World Cinema Project, Scorsese had offered him a ‘gift’. I would look at this a different way, and suggest the gift was in fact offered by Ahmed and Izza to Scorsese and audiences across the world who, like the appreciative crowd in the Filmhouse, have embraced this key work of Moroccan cinema – arguably the first Moroccan film with a truly global reach – ensuring that more than three decades on the film continues to have the power to move and engage audiences.

A group photo with the TMC and AiM teams with Izza and Ahmed

The TMC project team gratefully acknowledges the support of the AHRC for making this Call and Response event possible. We are also grateful to our project partners, the Africa in Motion festival, for allowing us to put on the events as part of the film festival. Thanks too to Omar Bin Afif for bringing the music alive at the workshop and to Dr Stefanie Van de Peer for her organisational skills and curatorial expertise in programming this event.

Will Higbee

Noureddine Lakhmari’s Burnout: the anti moucharabieh cinema!

 

On set – Burnout

Lakhmari’s Burnout has just been released in Morocco and it is quite an event! It came out on October 11 in the major cities (where there are still movie theaters…).

When I saw Noureddine Lakhmari in Tangier briefly the week before, he had told me how Moroccan cinema was not what Moroccan tourism was about: “it is not about the food, the tiles, the camels – have you seen many camels around here?… it is about a reality people can relate to, a daily life they know, an urban landscape they can identify, not a cleaned up, orientalist version of themselves.”

Poster Burnout (2017, Lakhmari)

Then I saw Burnout, the last part of his trilogy after Casanegra (2009) and Zero (2012). Again, the Casablancais are the focus of this film, but, rather than showing them in a ghettoized fashion, along separate destinies, Lakhmari decides to have them cross one another’s paths. Although some critics in Morocco have marveled at how lushly the white city is portrayed, I tend to disagree: Casablanca is shot mostly in interiors, and/or mostly at night, as the camera follows the various characters whose itineraries intersect. The film is not about Casablanca’s wide cityscape but rather focuses on the pointed intersections Casablanca may provide for people from the top 1% (Ines, the manager of an art gallery and her husband Jad; a rich artist; a corrupt politician on the Islamist side of the spectrum) to bump into the shrinking middle-class (a student in medical school struggling to make ends meet) and the poor class of the street shoe shiners (a motley crew of kids hired by a man in love with a one-legged woman who can never find work).

If it is about Casablanca, then it is about how the economical capital of Morocco allows its infinitely socially layered population to circulate and at times bump into one another. As a result, unpredictable encounters can happen in the city, some of them violent (the student and the politician, a kid and his so-called “uncle”), some of them magical. Among the latter, Ayoub, the shoeshine boy (played by Ilyas el Jihani, L’Orchestre des aveugles, Mohamed Mouftakir, 2015) meets Jad, the rich man whose father frustrated his dream of becoming a car racer.

These uneasy temporary joining of characters are filmed straight on, resulting in drama or humor (there is a bitter-sweet hilarious scene in a restaurant where the waiter describes the menu in perfect Nouvelle Cuisine French to a befuddled, darija-speaking audience of first-timers used to entirely different food and places). The image is sleek, very clear, the close ups on Jad’s facial scar, on the shoeshine boys‘ dirty skin and clothes, on a beggar’s nails black with grime are detailed, almost hyper-realistic. Lakhmari is clearly intent on showing us the gaping differences between people sharing the same spot with ruthless clarity and from as close up as possible: this is not a view from afar. As a result, we, as viewers, do not experience a panoramic view of the city from a protected moucharabieh: we can almost smell the urine and the sweat in the slums, and we feel the pain of Aida as she screams.

Noureddine Lakhmari

Some of Lakhmari’s themes and images from the previous two films are still present here: women are tough; men are violent, abusive; there is yet another impotent man (this time not old but middle-aged) and the character is slowly becoming crippled. This time, however, he will not die during the filmic narrative…

Obviously, Lakhmari does not want to hide his truth and does not want Moroccans to be tourists in their own landscape. Yet, in the end, you leave the theater with the laughter of Ayoub and Jad in your ears – perhaps a sliver of hope.

 

Florence Martin

Shakespeare in Casablanca by Sonia Terrab (60 minutes, 2016)

 

The International Women’s Film Festival in Salé offers three types of competition: feature length fiction; fiction shorts; documentaries. The latter is rich in works from all over the world and the Moroccan entry is no exception.

Shakespeare in Casablanca

Shakespeare à Casablanca is profoundly Casablancais: coproduced by Nabil Ayouch (Ali’n Productions) and Moroccan TV (2M), it follows a theater troupe through the streets of Casablanca as the director and actors prepare the staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The film is an adaptation on multiple levels: first the play had to be translated from English to the local version of spoken Arabic, Darija (on three different levels, we are told: the darija of yore, Casablanca’s variations, the darija of today’s youth), then it had to be understood, staged and rehearsed for present times in Casablanca. For that purpose, the work was done in partnership with its potential audience. The resulting documentary is a type of “making of” of the play: how does one film the production of the play from start to finish (along, predictably enough, three acts: Beginning of the Summer; Mid-Summer; Night of the Show)? How does one go from Shakespeare’s multi-leveled fantasy to Casablanca’s 21st century reality? The film therefore follows the actors asking people on the street how they would react to the story of star-crossed lovers whose parents forbid them to marry and who decide to flee to the forest. What would you do in that situation, they ask?

Call-and-Response

The main part of the filmic narrative becomes a fabulous call-and-response between curious passers-by and the probing actors on the streets of Casablanca, thus re-enacting in contemporary times Shakespeare’s play within the play structure in the Dream. In a hilarious scene, one man disagrees with the choice of the forest as an escape route: the lovers should retreat to the sea, to the beach, he repeats this with forceful conviction. Another steps in, addresses the male actor and demonstrates that he needs to project more assurance in order to convince his beloved’s father that his lover is his, and no one else’s. “You need to be more self-confident! You are not good at this! I would marry her! She would follow me everywhere!” Completely taken by his own acting, he ends up in a space that unites Shakespeare’s play and Casa’s reality, as he continues his dialogue with the actor and predicts: “you will marry her, and she will have your son but she will call him Fayçal [his own name], so taken is she with me, with how strong-willed I am!”

Along the way, the troupe asks people what love means. They avoid the bourgeois districts of Casablanca (e.g. the Twin Towers), preferring to interact with the people of poor neighbourhoods. What does love mean? What are the words for it in Darija? The translator mentions houb (love) and z’hou (desire, passion); a taxi driver talks about terms of endearment learned in childhood (e.g. “my little liver”). Between modesty and shame, love is hard to articulate. A young woman states that Moroccans will not and cannot talk about love.

In one of the most moving scenes, actors are asked, early in the process, to talk about a joy of love and a pain of love. Each actor tells his or her story in turn. A young man with sparkling eyes fervently describes the happiness he felt with the beloved young woman to whom he confided everything. Suddenly, his face veiled with sadness, and in an altered voice, he manages to state that the love story had finished. The camera lingers on his face twitching with pain: so moved is he that he can no longer articulate a word. After a silent while, he finally screams.

In the end, the play is staged in an empty cathedral in front of an audience, for free. As the camera films the faces of the people watching the old British bard’s complex play in Darija in today’s Morocco, there is a rare cinematic moment of grace.

Florence Martin