Established in 1982, the Festival National du Film (FNF) is devoted to screening the best of contemporary Moroccan feature films and short films from the previous twelve months. For the first seven editions, the festival took place sporadically, over 23 years in six different Moroccan cities. Then, in 2005, the 8th edition was held in Tangier, which has remained the home of the festival ever since – with a shift to the festival being held annually there since 2010. And so, this year, between 9-17 March, the attention of the Moroccan film industry (as well as the TMC research team) was focused on the 19th edition of the Festival National du Film in an unexpectedly rainy Tangier.
2018 was an important year for the festival in a number of ways. Firstly, it heralded the return of a number of key Moroccan filmmakers (including Faouzi Bensaïdi, Nour-Eddine Lakhmari and the newly appointed director of the Cinémathèque Marocaine, Narjiss Nejjar) whose work had been absent from the festival for too long, due to the rhythms of film production. Second, the 19th FNF was also an opportunity to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ‘birth’ of Moroccan cinema, with a retrospective of classic Moroccan films running at the Cinéma Rif, alongside the fifteen features and fifteen short films that were being screened in competition a little way across town in the Roxy cinema. Parallel to the Moroccan cinema retrospective at the Rif were screenings of the hors compétition films, which included En Quête de la 7ième porte, a fabulous documentary on Bouanani by Ali Essafi. In conversations over mint tea or coffee between the screenings, there seemed to be as much talk about what had not been included in the retrospective of Moroccan cinema as there was around the selection of films in competition and those contemporary films screening hors compétition. Whilst it is, undoubtedly, a thankless task for any programmer to condense 60 years of Moroccan film history into a selection of fourteen films, the lack of a place in the selection for key films by Farida Benlyazid, Jilali Ferhati and Ahmed el Maanouni, was a surprise to me, at least.
Lastly, and most importantly, this was a significant year for the diversity of contemporary films on offer, given talk in recent years of a possible ‘crisis’ in Moroccan cinema. This diversity was displayed not only in the aforementioned ‘return’ to the festival of contemporary Moroccan auteurs but also in experimental film such as Hicham Lasri’s Jahilya, alongside popular genre cinema such as Korsa (Toukouna, 2018) as well as original approaches to the established trend of Moroccan films exploring the politics and trauma of the Years of Lead in Kilikis…la cité des hiboux (Lamharzi, 2017), Cri de l’âme (Eljaouhary, 2018). Finally, it was to be found in the outstanding documentary House in the Fields (Hadid, 2017), whose strength merely served to highlight the fact that documentary was, regrettably, under-represented at this year’s festival in both the feature and short film categories – although more visible in the hors compétition section.
In addition to the films being screened in the three strands of this year’s festival there was a concerted effort by the CCM to bring together a series of industry panels on co-production and distribution with invited guests from across the world – as well as a pitch competition for young filmmakers, a screenwriting and development workshop run by both MediTalents (a trans-Mediterranean initiative to promote and develop the projects of emerging filmmakers from across the Mediterranean region) and a specialist workshop on documentary funding by FIDADOC. All of these sessions took place in the Hotel Atlas Rif on the seafront – a key hub of industry activity during the festival – offering a much-needed forum and visibility for Moroccan filmmakers to engage with, learn from and network with industry experts from within and beyond Morocco.
These kinds of activities have taken place in previous editions of the National Festival: see for example Jamal Bahmad’s blog entry from last year’s FNF on the panel discussion on distribution and exhibition. However, there did seem to be a more consciously transnational outlook to this year’s industry focused events – an indication, perhaps, that more needs to be done to promote Moroccan cinema internationally in ways that have not always been presented as a priority in this and other Moroccan festivals (most notably and somewhat paradoxically, at the Marrakesh International Film Festival, where the focus has been on the glitz and glamour of the red carpet).
In the coming weeks, the TMC team will offer a series of more in-depth blog posts focusing on specific aspects of the festival mentioned above, as well as, of course (!) reactions and analyses of the films themselves that made up the 19th Festival National du Film. To be continued…
Two members of the TMC team, Florence and Jamal, attended the latest National Film Festival in Tangier (FNF, 3-11 March 2017). The annual festival is organised by the Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CCM) in association with the National Association of Film Critics and local partners in Tangier. As Florence argued in a previous post for this blog, this year’s festival was characterised by the screening of many wonderful films, however, there were also films that raised questions about the quality and direction of Moroccan cinema.
On Sunday, 4 March, the Moroccan Chamber of Film Producers organised a roundtable as part of FNF. The roundtable helped illuminate some of the challenges facing Moroccan cinema today. The table was chaired by Jamal Souissi, the vice-president of the Chamber. In his introduction, Souissi warned that the incessant closure of cinemas in Morocco today is not only an economic problem, but also a social one.
The film critic and Rabat-based academic Omar Khammar was the first panellist speaking. He observed that although Morocco has many film schools today, the number of filmgoers is decreasing year after year. The digitisation of cinemas is not enough to bring back people to the cinemas. The problem needs to be tackled at the source. For Khammar, the digital revolution has upset the film scene, and Moroccan cinema needs to adapt to this revolution. Some people have built film screening rooms in their own homes. In addition, piracy is a big problem in Morocco, which will also not be solved by the digitisation of cinemas. This has been a key component of the CCM vs Pirates battle over the last two decades. The speaker also drew attention to the fact today’s youth don’t appreciate the conventional length of films: the notion of time has changed, and cinema has got to adapt to this situation. The Moroccan state is also responsible for the current crisis of Moroccan cinema because it has not educated youth to love and appreciate cinema. According to Khammar, this is part of the state’s long war against culture in postcolonial Morocco. Society has been invaded by commercial culture, which in turn has made people shun culture, cinema and reading. The tax rate on cinemas is unfair and to blame for part of the complex problem of cinema closures.
Among the multiple recommendations offered by Khammar to address this situation is the call to build cinemas in the Moroccan countryside. Local councils should spend some of their money on cinema and culture. In this vein, civil society organisations need to assume their role in spreading film culture in society to combat Islamism and other forms of intolerance and radical politics among youth. In addition, some mosque imams should be discouraged from lambasting cinema and films in their Friday sermons. Finally, Khammar pointed out that film advertising is very weak in Morocco, and something needs to be done about it. It is often foreign films that we see advertised on billboards and posters. In all cases, the solution to Moroccan cinema’s crisis will take long years if not a generation to be solved.
The next speaker was Noureddine Ayouch. He started with an anecdote about an old film-house in Casablanca, which has been converted to a one-night stand hotel. Ayouch insisted on an honest diagnosis of the state of cinemas in Morocco. He also said that we need to make popular films like Road to Kabul (2011), a popular comedy about terrorism directed by Brahim Chkiri. According to Ayouch, Moroccans don’t like Moroccan films because they are not entertaining; they find them too cerebral. Another problem is that people don’t feel morally guilty when they buy pirated movies. This cuts across all social strata. The speaker also said that we shouldn’t rely on CCM money to make films. Filmmakers need to look for other financial resources to supplement funds, or make films without CCM funds at all. This is important, he said, because the CCM is also a censorship board, especially after the Islamists came to power in 2011. According to Ayouch, this has not been a good move for Moroccan cinema and society.
In the last part of his talk, Mr Ayouch offered a number of recommendations to lessen and gradually wipe out the crisis of Moroccan cinema in the globalisation era:
VAT tax on cinemas should be reduced to 5 percent if not cancelled altogether
The film community should directly address the King to resolve the problem of Moroccan cinema such as censorship and piracy
Help pirate film vendors sell legal copies of films instead of pirated ones: they should be helped to integrate the formal economy
Local councils should be encouraged to spend some of their budgets to build and support cinemas
Moroccan television needs to grant more space to film critics and film programmes
Moroccan film distributors need to export Moroccan films and become major actors in other film markets
Quotas for national films in Moroccan cinemas and TV should be introduced
Film investors need to invest in cinema in sub-Saharan Africa just like the rest of the Moroccan economic community today
More money needs to be spent on advertising films just like in the USA: the government needs to spend money on this by helping producers and distributors
The veteran filmmaker Latif Lahlou was the next speaker. He revealed his plan to build 400 cinemas in Morocco. This gargantuan project rests on the premise that we need to focus on the local to solve the problems of national cinema. He recommended that the state makes going to the cinema affordable for the average Moroccan. Lahlou stressed the need for affordable cinemas in working-class neighbourhoods because that is where the large and real audience for Moroccan cinemas is.
The next speaker was El Ayadi, a cinema owner. He pointed out that there is no political will to reform the film sector. The crisis of Moroccan cinema has been going for 25 years. Cinema owners are burdened with taxes while nothing is being done to fight piracy and encourage people to go to the cinema. The 20 % VAT is an aberration, said El Ayadi. It is time to reduce or cancel this tax to keep the few remaining cinemas open. The other problem is that CCM treats cineplexes like Mégarama and small cinemas the same. This is killing the small cinemas. The speaker said that it is no longer viable to own a cinema. The rate of frequency is 6 to 7 percent around the year. This needs to be raised to 20 percent at least to keep cinemas viable and open. The root of the problem is that 90 percent of Moroccans can’t afford the current price of cinema tickets. El Ayadi recommended the building of more neighbourhood cinemas to reduce the transportation costs for filmgoers. He went on to reveal that popular Moroccan films like El Ferrouj (2015) by Abdellah Ferkous saved the year for cinemas.
Popular films bring in money. That is why we need to refrain from judging films. Let us leave it to the audiences to choose and watch the films that they like. The CCM therefore needs to support both auteur and commercial films like El Ferrouj and The Road to Kabul. Otherwise, cinemas would close down, said El Ayadi.
He added that Moroccans need to learn more from the French system because it works. Cinemas are doing well in France. He emphasised that the French cinema system rewards popular films with a €1 million prize to each film that reaches 1 million entries. The cinema owner agreed with previous speakers that 20 % VAT is preventing investors from building or buying cinemas in Morocco. For him, public-private investments are needed and can be achieved by getting the CCM, local councils and other public bodies to put in some money to encourage private producers to invest in cinema.
The last intervener in the routable was Tarrous, who is a film critic and activist based in Tangier. He argued that film professionals ought to listen to the Moroccan public about this question. The scene is dominated by the views of film professionals. Since Moroccan films are subsidised by the taxpayer, we must find the audience for them and keep cinemas open: “Without the audience, Moroccan cinema wouldn’t survive for very long”. It is worth remembering that part of the justification for the public support for cinema is to provide some social welfare for film professionals. However, the professionals are doing next to nothing to attract the general public to watch their films. The Tangerine critic went on to say that the subsidy system is working, but it was high time some serious policies were introduced to help cinema self-support rather than always rely on public subsidies. Moroccan cinema needs an audience large enough to support it financially. Tarrous finally recommended that the current funding system should be revoked because it is not sustainable.
The roundtable was followed by a vibrant and rich Q&A session. Many key actors in the Moroccan film scene who were in attendance took to the floor to voice their thoughts on the crisis of cinemas across the country. For Sarim Fassi-Fihri, the current CCM director, one of the problems that his institution faces, lies in the fact that most cinema owners do not submit their financial reports to the CCM in order to have a good idea about their problems. Ahmed El Maânouni (President of Moroccan Chamber of Moroccan Film Producers) discoursed next and said that more events like the National Cinema Day are needed to encourage Moroccans to become aware of their national cinema’s problems. He added that Morocco needs to learn from France by supporting cinema at every level from production to exhibition. Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi, a filmmaker and the director of the Association of Moroccan Film Producers, reacted by saying that we need to stop expecting help from the state and politicians: “We need to help ourselves. Filmmakers must do something or lessen the pain of Moroccan cinema today,” he said. For Hassan Benjelloun, also a filmmaker and the director of Moroccan Producers Chamber, cinema owners need to programme more diverse films every day instead of one film for weeks on end. This is because the cinema habitués are the same people who come again and again. They get discouraged by repetitive programming.
Next to speak was Amina, a civil society activist. She highlighted that the crisis of Moroccan cinema is a symptom of the crisis of Moroccan modernity as a whole. Moroccan women used to go to cinemas on their own even when they hailed from traditional families. That is no longer the case, she said. Amina added that schools are the future of Moroccan cinema because we need to target young Moroccans to address the film crisis. El Othmani, a film professional, stressed the need for sociological studies about the Moroccan cinema-going public to better understand this problem. The subjective views of Moroccan film professionals will take us nowhere and cannot be the basis of serious solutions to the crisis of Moroccan cinema.
Jamal Eddine Naji, director of Audiovisual Communication at the Haute Autorité de la Communication Audiovisuelle (HACA), intervened by saying that the HACA has conducted a large-scale survey on Moroccan TV audiences. Someone needs to commission a similar survey about Moroccan film audiences. This is needed because we don’t know the audience for Moroccan cinema. He added that there is also a need to revitalise Moroccan cinema by creating a star system to help it stand on its own feet. Naji concluded that Moroccan filmmakers and actors in the film sector are called upon to use technology effectively in the digital revolution. Omar Ait Mokhtar, a film critic, festival organiser and film club veteran, retorted that Moroccan and international academics and students have carried out fieldwork on Moroccan cinema. What needs to be done is reading and translating some of their recommendations into reality.
Another speaker called for a national front for the defence of cinema to protect directors and film students from certain political currents and unemployment. The rich audience interventions continued with Mellouk, a film critic, revealing that Moroccans spend 250 MAD per month on audiovisual consumption: “That is enough. We just need to bring some of that money back into cinemas”. He explained that if we put together all that is spent on audio-visual production and advertising in Morocco, we get 100 billion MAD. This is a big industry. Cinema needs to place itself at or near the centre of this industry. The creative industries are major employers for the future. Bouchta Farqzaid, film critic, decried that piracy is killing Moroccan cinema. It has gone beyond pirated CDs. Hard drives with over 500 films are on sale on the black market. Boudih, a cinema owner, pointed out that cinemas cannot stand the situation anymore. The owners need urgent decisions rather than discourses and more roundtables. Finally, Benkirane, a film distributor, said that we need to save what can be saved. The social and economic living condition of Moroccans need to be improved to allow them to go to the cinema more often. Moroccan media and schools also need to encourage people to go to the cinema.
In conclusion, attending the National Film Festival in Tangier was very productive for the TMC team. The national festival is just what the Marrakech International Film Festival is not. In Tangier, there are roundtables and daily press conferences and discussions after each film screening. The Tangerine crowds are small but rich and friendly. Florence and I were witnesses to candid discussions about the state of Moroccan cinema. We left Tangier with plenty of ideas to share with Will and Stefanie, the two other TMC research team members, and process for the final outputs of the AHRC project.
On February 17, 2015, I met Abdellatif Labbar in the old theater district, a stone’s throw away from the Rialto. This delightful gentleman who used to program the films that were screened in Casablanca, reminisced about the golden age of cinemas in his fast-changing city and explained why Indian films were screened in Morocco.
“I was in charge of programming the films to be screened in Casablanca. There were over two hundred movie theaters in the Kingdom. Today we only have a little over fifty screens…” [fifty-seven, according to the Centre Cinématographique Marocain]. “Too much piracy and too little interest perhaps… People have changed… Look at the many old cinemas of Casa: the Rialto, the Vox, the Empire, the Colisée, the Lux, the Verdun… most of them are closed now, although in theory, a movie theater cannot be closed.
In the old days, we programmed films from the US, France, Italy, from all over Europe, but also, of course, a lot of Egyptian films. People loved swashbuckling films, American westerns. Each time we screened a film by Charlie Chaplin, it was always a hit! And it was a hit for a long time: people adored him! Some of the oldies, like Ben Hur or the films with Sidney Poitier were so popular they had a five-week run, especially in the summer… There were other sorts of hits: I remember Z by Costa-Gavras (1969), in particular. It arrived on Moroccan screens only in 1972. But the censors took it down on its second day of release. Too politically charged after the failed attempted coups against Hassan II [the Skhirat coup on July 10, 1971 and the aborted putsch of August 16 1972, dubbed “le coup d’état des aviateurs”]… When the film was reissued ten years later, people flocked to it! And it showed at the Rialto and the Vox for weeks on end.
Cinema dealt with language in an interesting way: the Moroccan audience saw the French versions of the films coming from the United States. Gone with the Wind, for instance, was dubbed in French. So were the westerns with John Wayne. Only a handful of French films were dubbed in darija to accommodate the local audience – Fantômas and later Fanfan la tulipe come to mind – otherwise, most French films were screened in their original versions. The same went for Egyptian films, of course. Moroccans, like other people in the Arab world, learned the Egyptian dialect via Egyptian radio (Voice of the Arabs), TV and cinema.
In 1963, however, Morocco and Algeria fought on border issues. Egypt, recently independent and led by Gamal Nasser, sided with the Algerian FLN against Morocco. In reprisals, the Kingdom broke all diplomatic ties with Egypt. As a result, we could no longer import Egyptian films. This is when Morocco started to import films from India massively, and dub them in darija. We were inundated with Indian films! Lots of Indians had moved to Tangier when it was an international city, had married Moroccan women and settled in various urban centers throughout the Kingdom. Some of their translations were hilarious!”
On my trip preparing for our research project’s first symposium in December and scouting for venues, caterers and hotels, I went to see La Isla de Perejil by “l’enfant terrible du cinéma marocain”, Ahmed Boulane. Florence Martin writes about it in her first blog entry, from 4 February 2016. The film and its director are part of the transnational injection into Moroccan cinema, as Ahmed Boulane himself comes from the former pirates’ republic of Salé, took on the Irish nationality, and made a film dealing with the absurd situation that caused an international incident between Spain and Morocco in 2002. Co-produced with Boulane-O’Bryne Production (Casablanca) and Maestranza Film (Sevilla), Boulane co-wrote it with Spaniard Carlos Dominguez. Boulane is best known for his second feature film, The Angels of Satan (2007), about a scandal that shook Moroccan sensibilities in 2003: the case of a group of young Moroccan heavy-metal rockers wrongly accused of being Satanists. The film became a real Moroccan box office hit in 2007.
One of the best discoveries watching La Isla de Perejil was the main actor: Abdellah Ferkous, with his quietly, tongue-in-cheek, playful style of comedy. His rotund looks, typical moustache and big cheeks give shape to the comic identity of this TV actor and his character in La Isla, Ibrahim, a soldier of the Auxiliary Forces. At the start of the film one gets a sense of his modest background, his simple life and his contentment with his small (and poor) family, living with their chickens. He likes simple pleasures such as coffee and food, and his satisfaction with life comes through in little rituals, visible for example in the manner in which he wakes up his children and the repeated stretching and washing of his hands and face.
Just before his retirement, Ibrahim is sent to the tiny Isla de Perejil on the northern coast of Morocco, whose sovereignty is disputed by Morocco and Spain. His mission is to monitor the passage of smugglers, illegal migrants and drug traffickers. His rituals continue on this island, although his radio contact with the mainland breaks up and he is alone apart from the company of a cockerel and a goat. One day, while bathing, Ibrahim discovers that the sea has washed ashore an illegal migrant from Senegal. Close to death, Mamadou is carried to Ibrahim’s makeshift home. At first he is treated with suspicion but Ibrahim slowly nurses him back to health, and the two characters bond over food, music and the radio Mamadou has brought along in a plastic bag. As they try to establish their means of survival, they become friends and Ibrahim protects Mamadou, his cockerel and his goat. When Mamadou suggests they eat the animals, Ibrahim is taken aback and assures the Senegalese man that he does not eat his friends. With the growing solidarity between the two men, the international incident that is brewing in the background, and of which they are completely ignorant, becomes ever more absurd: not only is the island tiny, the loneliness there brings two strangers and potential enemies together, while Spanish and Moroccan politicians direct a diplomatic conflict and a military attack on one another.
Loosely based on an actual conflict between Spain and Morocco in 2002, this is a gentle farce that reverberates with political undertones. Not only does it look in some detail at the refugee crisis and the possibility of solidarity between Africans in their ‘fight’ against the European coloniser, it also makes fun of this coloniser in his inability to deal with Moroccan sovereignty. The film has a satirical bite to its treatment of the relationship between the Spanish and the Moroccans, but the postcolonial critique does not spare the ineptitude of Moroccan politicians either. The concept of nationhood, this film tells us, is hollow: the island is abandoned, but the moment someone sets foot on it and raises a faded, washed-out Moroccan flag (orange and yellow instead of bright red and green), the neo-colonialist tendencies of territorialism come flooding back. The absolute absurdity of this conflict is highlighted by the filmmaker, as he emphasizes the smallness of the island, and uses a comical actor as the single, middle aged soldier rather than the historical team of six Moroccan soldiers ‘invading’ the island with a dinghy.
As Florence wrote in her blog on the death of the father in recent Moroccan films (15 March), Petits Bonheurs by Mohamed Chrif Tribak starts immediately after the death of a father and looks at the consequences for a poor widow Zineb and her seventeen-year-old daughter Nouffissa. However, the film does not reflect on this bereavement, and pragmatically looks forward at the future and dreams of a teenager in 1955 Morocco. In hindsight of course this is appropriate, as Morocco is about to gain independence, and the role of women is about to change dramatically. That this film focuses so singularly on women’s lives and roles, shows a turn in Moroccan cinema (even by men) towards the female sphere. I read a few similarities with some Tunisian films into this film.
As a widow unable to meet her and her daughter’s basic needs, Nouffissa’s mother is forced to accept the invitation from Lalla Amina, a wealthy woman, to settle at her large home. There is a suggestion that Amina and Zineb were “more than just friends” in the past. The film deals with girls’ education, domestic roles and appropriate dress sense. Within this large house in the medina of Tetouan, an ambiguous friendship parallel to Zineb and Lalla Amina’s develops between Nouffissa and Fetouma, granddaughter of Lalla Amina.
Perhaps the most interesting sequence is the group of women’s excitement about a new film with a famous, handsome actor, and their attendance at the cinema of this Egyptian melodrama. In the film, emotions run much higher than they do in Petits Bonheurs itself, but the experience of going to the cinema is a reason for excitement. The girls recall that just a few years ago they were hardly allowed to go outside. It is, as a matter of fact, Nouffissa’s first time at the cinema, and she looks in bewilderment at the screen, but also at the ‘rencontres’ between girls and boys around her. It makes her innocent outlook on love and marriage all the more endearing.
The two girls, both living under pressure of tradition moving into modernity, have divergent views. While Nouffissa does not wear the veil and Fetouma does, Fetouma embodies the rebellious girl, who rejects the idea of early marriage and hopes to continue her studies, while Nouffissa would like to find a husband as she aspires upward social mobility. In this way, the film shows some parallels with Tunisian Nouri Bouzid’s Hidden Beauties (2012). Their relationship comes under pressure when Fetouma confesses she has had sex but is not interested in marriage, while Nouffissa hides from Fetouma her engagement to someone she does not know.
With exquisite detail, the film showcases the architectural, decorative and fashion trends of the 50s and 60. It also looks at both the modern and traditional styles and modes of thinking by women, and shows the power of the static camera and the reflexive, slow development of a simple, straightforward story. Careful with the male gaze, the camera and the director manage to remain unobtrusive fairly successfully, except when Fetouma acts on an instinctual and naïve act of lust on the impressionable Nouffissa.
The film offers a calm balance and a sense of peace with fate. While it does not totally eschew political or feminist rhetoric, it also does not foreground it. With this comes a certain risk taken by the director: the film shows some similarities with Tunisian Moufida Tlatli’s The Silence of the Palace (1994), but where Tlatli’s film is outspoken about women’s voices being drowned out by men and the uncertainties independence brings for North Africa, Petits Bonheurs seems more interested in a happy ending (see the title of the film, indicating little pleasures). I suspect this is where its accessibility lies, and its success with large local audiences. Garnering standing ovations and winning important prizes on the festival circuit inside Morocco, and being screened at the large multiplexes as well as the more discerning cinemas to large audiences, is proof of this film’s subtle yet permissible look into the past of Moroccan women. It is precisely the subtlety with which it acts that attracts a large female crowd to the cinema.