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.
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.
One of the most intriguing films of this year’s National Film Festival (Tangier, 9-18 March) was definitely Le Cri de l’âme (its English title: The Howl of the Soul) by Abdelilah Eljaouhari, a fiction film based on an original story turned into script by Othman Achekra. Its theme is not new: the film is a return to the Years of Lead under the reign of Hassan II, a theme picked up by many Moroccan filmmakers since the early 2000s (from Lahcen Zinoun’s powerful short, Faux pas, 2003, to feature films such as Hassan Benjelloun’s La Chambre noire, 2004, or Jilali Ferhati’s Mémoire en détention, 2005; as well as Leïla Kilani’s moving documentary Nos lieux interdits, 2011, for instance). However, the treatment of the topic is fresh and solidly anchored in Morocco’s culture: that of the aïta.
The latter is a popular song tradition with a rich history in the Doukkala and Chaouia regions in Morocco’s Atlantic mid-west (amply and beautifully documented by Izza Génini, who was at one of our previous events). The film, set in 1973, at the height of the repression against student movements, uses the aïta both as a structural device, and as the signifier of a long history of brazen resistance: some of the aïta performers have sung truth to power to the peril of their lives. Encoding this particular element of cultural patrimony on several levels in the filmic narrative works well and roots a universal message of liberation deeply in the local terrain.
The film follows the structure of the aïta spelled out on the screen:
Prologue: the people of el Aloua
Act I: The fair daughter of the Fassi
Act II: Menanna Zerouala
Act II: Where do you come from? Where do I come from?
Epilogue: Sooner or later, truth will prevail.
Each section of the film is heralded by five performers of the aïta (3 men and 2 women, the Nachate Essayada band). Well-known aïta songs form most of the soundtrack, and one of the two protagonists, Abdelfattah Fakehani, is an activist teacher who is doing research on the aïta throughout the film. Hence the Years of Lead are framed, and frame, the aïta.
The story that echoes so powerfully in the 1973 narrative is that of Mennana Kharboucha, an extremely gifted aïta composer and singer who sang songs of resistance. Mennana acquired legendary status and all sorts of stories circulated about her, yet she was also a historical figure who came to fame at the turn of the century. At the time, a violent and powerful money-hungry Caïd, Aïssa Ben Omar Al Abdi, after leading ruthless wars of conquest in neighboring territories, levied such high taxes that his people were starving. In 1895, the Ouled Zaid revolted against him and almost won: they were under the spell of Mennana Kharboucha’s songs, the lyrics of which denounced Caïd Ben Omar’s despotism and unfair treatment of his people. One of the legends about the performer is that the Caïd fell in love with her and when she sang about her deep contempt for his abuses of power to his face, condemned her to be buried alive. Clearly, it is perilous for a woman to sing truth to a Caïd’s power frontally…
No wonder, then, that the legend of Kharboucha, the female figure who gives voice to the oppressed, becomes reenacted as a parable to talk about the Years of Lead. Hence the song on Kharboucha in the 1990s, composed by Mohamed Al Batouli and Saïd Limame, performed by Hayat Idrissi, and promptly censored by Hassan II’s regime; Jnane El Kerma, a TV series by Farida Bourquia in 2002; Kharboucha, a play by Salem Gouindi that same year; and Kharboucha, a film by Hamid Zoughi in 2008.
Eljouhary’s film has a satisfying intricacy, as the mise en abyme of Mennana Kharboucha echoes through a multi-layered narrative: a detective story (a woman’s corpse is found in the phosphate quarry of Khouribga at the beginning of the film), the historically accurate narrative of the students’ movement UNEM banned in 1973 (with the arrest of Saïda Menebhi in 1976 in Rabat, who later went on hunger strike and died), a nuanced portrayal of a class system in 1973 (the wealth-inducing city of Khouribga, “world capital of phosphates” inhabited by a poor population) that hints at today’s Moroccan realities (a theme common to many if not all films at this 19th edition of the Festival National du Film). These levels of narrative rest on the intersecting narratives of four individuals: Driss, the depressed former philosophy student turned cop; Abdelfattah, the teacher and activist who heads a cine-club and researches the aïta; Cheikha Zohra whom he interviews for his research and her husband, the wise Cheikh Rouhani who counts the stars at night; Abdelwaneth, the club guard and his dog Sitel. There is a love story, and a history of disappearance (and – spoiler alert! – reappearance).
It is also well edited, well directed, with a carefully selected cast of actors who are completely believable; it is well shot (by Ali Benjelloun) and it is a Moroccan story that speaks to a Moroccan audience via all these references off screen while enjoyable and understandable by a larger audience outside Morocco (to which I belong).
My question is now: where and when will it be seen? The release in Moroccan theaters is not going to happen for a while and, as with so many Moroccan films, an international release is far from certain. I wish all the best to Cri de l’âme.
After an exciting week in the mythic city of Tangier for the Moroccan National film festival, I went to Meknès for another festival, one with international ambitions: FICAM, or the International Festival of Animation in Meknès. The festival runs over 5 days and is held at the Institut Français in the new town, while we were staying in a riad in the old town. The walk to the festival is steeply uphill, and so we usually arrived at the film screenings very ready for a refreshing mint tea and a film.
FICAM was launched in 2000 and focuses on animations from the international circuit. Mohammed Beyoud, FICAM’s creative director, inaugurated the festival with an eye on the promotion of the art of animation, through both animated film screenings and educational workshops. Beyoud invites animators and filmmakers from both commercial and independent backgrounds to showcase their work and provide, as speakers, valuable knowledge on a range of animation practices. It is a very open-minded festival, with a focus on students’ experiences and development. This is perhaps most obvious in the workshops and conferences that take place every day in the médiathèque: the festival’s organisers and the speakers gear their introductions and talks to the students, and constitute an inherently encouraging, if somewhat intense, part of the fest.
This year, FICAM’s focus was on women in animation, its trailer showcasing female figures from all over the world, including Arab, African, Japanese and European women in animation. Indeed, the banners stated assertively: “L’Afrique s’exprime” and “L’Occident est au rendez-vous”. The main guest of the festival was Brenda Chapman, best known for her directorial work on Brave (2012), The Prince of Egypt (1998) and The Lion King (1994). Chapman gave the festival’s lecture on its first day, focusing on her own and other women’s contributions to American animation. Other guests were Carlos Saldanha and Sunao Katabuchi and one particularly interesting talk was about the depiction of the Arab in American animation, delivered by Rachid Naim from the University of Safi.
The festival is funded by the Aïcha Foundation and the French Institute, and it receives institutional support from CCM, TV5Monde and 2M. CCM does not pay enough attention to animation, and that can only change for the better if FICAM and its visitors keep their precious work going. As Meknès is the heart of the agricultural region in Morocco, and Aïcha, as the largest concern in the canning industry, is an appropriate local funder. It was founded in the 1920s, and connects the local agricultural industry to the wellbeing of its future consumers. The mascot, a young girl, has transformed over the years into an animated advertising tool with characteristics of Snow White, as she looks and acts completely innocent, has seven companions who work hard and have distinct, individual personality traits. They all adore and protect Aïcha. (To see an example of how Aicha is animated for TV advertising, see here). The brand has grown to such an extent that as soon as Aïcha appears on screen at FICAM the young audiences go mad with enthusiasm and start clapping and singing along loudly to the tunes. The seven companions were outside in the courtyard of the French Institute, waiting for us to come out of the films and entertain all of us, but mostly the youngest kids who laughed, danced and played with them in between screenings. Animated advertising is therefore recognised as having an enormous influence on the industry of animated film at the festival, while the brand also supports and recognises the importance of the festival and its international reach.
This year, FICAM had 6 feature films in competition: Mutafukaz by Guillaume Renard and Shojiro Nishimi (France/Japan, 2017); Minga and the Borken Spoon by Claye Edou (Cameroon, 2017); In this Corner of the World by Sunao Katabuchi (Japan, 2017); Nelly and Simon: Mission Yéti by Nancy Florence Savard and Pierre Graco (Canada, 2017); A Silent Voice by Naoko Yamada (Japan, 2017); and Un Homme est mort by Olivier Cossu (France, 2018). These six films were all shown in the presence of their directors, with a short intro and an extensive Q&A after the screenings. All of the directors were either very pleasantly surprised by the attention they received in screening rooms filled with children and young people, or they commented on how much they loved FICAM and how excited they were to be there again, among the children, to speak to them and engage with the students. FICAM clearly focuses on the audience and on the education of the next generation of animation lovers and animation artists.
The short film competition likewise was incredibly rich, with films from all over the world, and ran over four days, screening five to six films every evening at 9pm. This wide variety was matched by the array of professionals, students and fans at some of the many talks, discussions, roundtables and ‘thé à la menthe’ moments in the café of the Institut Français. In the coming blog entries, I will reflect a little bit more on each of these aspects of FICAM, and on the winners of the competitions.
Stefanie Van de Peer
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