Category Archives: Tangiers

Thoughts on the 19th National Film Festival, Tangier…à suivre


Introduction to competition films

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.

Cinema Rif

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.

Rif Grande Salle

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.

FIDADOC workshop

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…

Will Higbee

Roundtable Report: Chamber of Moroccan Film Producers (Tangier, 4 March 2017)

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.

Noureddine Ayouch (second left), PR tycoon and father of Nabil Ayouch. Ayouch’s father has just made his first film.


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.

Part of the audience

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.

Happy TMC team in Tangier!

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.

Jamal Bahmad

So what about the matriarchs?

Note 1 on the 18th National Film Festival in Tangier (3-11 March, 2017)

Festival National du Film Tanger

Just back from the 18th National Film Festival in Tangier, after having seen this year’s crop of films at the splendid Roxy Theater, downtown. Although smaller in number than last year (15 feature films instead of 25), they tackled a wide array of topics and genres ranging from fiction to documentary.

The theme of return seemed central to the preoccupations of this year’s selections: whether in time (e.g. Ahmed Baidou’s Addour on the resistance of the Amazighen to the French settlers), or in space to a Moroccan “home”.

The latter takes the form of various voyages back: by a child of Moroccan immigrants in Europe (Tarik el Idrissi’s documentary Le Voyage de Khadija/ Khadija’s Journey and Adil Azzab’s hybrid, deeply moving film My Name is Adil); by a Spanish veteran to the Riff region (Mohammed Bouzaggou’s Iperita); by the prisoners kept in terrifying jails by the Polisario (Louba El Younssi’s documentary, Les Miracles d’un serment / Miracles of a Vow).

The question is: to what and to whom exactly do these characters return?

What struck me this time around, especially after the previous year’s productions in which the patriarch was rendered impotent or murdered relentlessly from one film to the next, was the focus on the matriarch in a string of works. Here again, the image of the matriarch was diverse and yielded a complex representation of woman as mother, as abused and occasionally as abuser, as comedic, tragic, tender, brusque, and almost always a Moroccan version of Mother Courage surviving and protecting her brood against all odds.

In the comic register, two films: the long-awaited film by Ahmed el Maanouni, Fadma’s Hand in which Fadma (the mother and grandmother played by Fadila Benmoussa) is always a strong, brave woman who is hilariously funny and travels between Morocco and France, old and new generations, with grace and success. Her presence on screen dominates both literally (via constant close-ups and medium shots) and figuratively (in her dreams she flies over the world and we see her hovering over her sons, the earth, while La Callas sings in the background). This comedy featured actors who are well known TV comedians in Morocco to whom the audience reacted immediately (a strategy also used in The Rooster / Al Farooj (2014) or or La Isla (2015) by Abdellah Ferkous). Fadila Benmoussa plays opposite successful comedian Abderrahmane Ouaabad Eko (Fadma’s younger son, Karim).

The second comedy, Mohamed Achaour’s Lhajjates / The Old Ladies, shows four poor ageing women friends in diverse situations who decide to take revenge on their sad fates by stealing money from Mafioso-like boss who has fired one of them. The film is replete with gags and one-liners that sent the audience roaring with laughter. It features well-known actresses such as Raouia (a top actress in Moroccan cinema) and Fatima Bouchain (Fattouma in Road to Kabul, Brahim Chkiri, 2011).

These funny matriarchs are women without men, fighting for their children or for themselves, and relying on one another in the warmest of female solidarity in a Moroccan urban environment or the depressed Ardennes countryside in France (in the case of Fadma). In short, the patriarch is either off-screen or looming in the distance, occasionally at mid-distance, and the focus rests squarely on the older women and the humor they deploy to deal with daily issues.

In contrast, Hakim Belabbes’s Aida, in Pluie de sueur / Sweat Rain, stands tall, tragic, immensely brave and close to the earth, is stuck in poverty in her little village. Caring for both her son (who has Down syndrome) and her husband (who refuses to sell the land of his ancestors no matter how long the crippling drought lasts, and who keeps referring to his son as “the creature”), she is nurturing (she cooks a lot in the film!), collected, sweet, comforting, and by the end of the film, her identity as wife becomes completely subsumed by her identity as mother. The lavish photography (by Tunisian Amine Messadi) sustains both the epic and intimate dimensions of a family facing the lack of water in this portrayal of survival in rural Morocco:

Even Hicham Lasri’s cartoonish Headbang Lullaby contains an Amazigh female character whose husband has been in prison for years, and who therefore raises her son by herself. This is not the only film that alludes to the emotional and economic price mothers and wives (and their offspring) paid while their husbands were jailed during Hassan II’s years of lead. In this film as well as in Belabbes’s, the female character, deeply rooted in the land, stands strong for herself and others.

In Raouf Sebbahi’s road movie Hayat/Life that follows a bus from Tangier to Agadir and the crisscrossing stories that emerge from its newly created community of diverse passengers (very funny in places), also zooms in on women characters: a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hayat, traveling together, a middle-aged woman returning to Morocco, and finally a young woman reaching motherhood (she gives birth on the bus, helped by a doctor on board).

The apparent recurrence of the matriarch (whether a grandmother or a mother) on screen was also visible in some of the fifteen shorts. For example, Ayoub Laoussifi’s Tikitat a’Soulima / The Cinema Ticket tells the story of a little boy raised by a single mother (whose husband, once again, is in jail) who is harsh on him but ends up reconciled with him thanks to cinema. Karima Zoubir’s Derrière le mur / Behind the Wall shows a humble couple sharing an egalitarian view of the education of their daughter Nadia while Hicham Regragui’s Ima / Mother shows an old matriarch revealing a secret to her children before she dies. However, not all female figures are positive: a disturbing short, Dimma Bounaylat’s No evokes the rape of a little boy by a mature woman and the disastrous effects on his sexuality and view of women which will lead to murder.

So, what’s with all these matriarchs on screen this year? Perhaps, once the illusion of male power has been shattered on screen, the only remaining solid anchor available for one’s identity is the female one (even if No cautions against possible abuse). This recurring positioning of women at the center or close to the center of the filmic narrative while taking into account the emigration (Adil Azzab’s My Name is Adil), jail sentences, poverty of men, also focuses on women who speak, sing, feed and comfort; women who give birth and raise children, generation after generation. In the wake of Yasmine Kassari’s L’Enfant endormi (2004) on men’s migration to the North leaving their women behind to till an arid land and raise babies alone, this year’s films affirm that matriarchs and their daughters endure.

Florence Martin

Death of the father at the National Film Festival, Tangiers 2016.

In the latest production of Moroccan cinema, father figures seem not to fare very well. For instance, in Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (2012), the father is impotent, silent, at the mercy of his wife and children for sustenance; in Noureddine Lakhamri’s Zero (2012), he is an invalid entirely dependent on his son to survive. The films shown at the 17th National Film Festival in Tangiers show a similar, consistent, relentless trend. To wit:

Tears of Satan (Hicham El Jebbari, 2015) is an action-packed road-movie that narrates the revenge story of a former prisoner who finds his torturer from the years of lead. In a stunning reversal of the Abrahamic myth, the same hyper-masculine torturer ends up killing his own son, before being killed himself. Here the masculine authority figure is completely destroyed, harrowing moment after harrowing moment.

Filmposter Midnight Orchestra, Jérôme Cohen Olivar (2014)

In Midnight Orchestra by Jérôme Cohen Olivar (2014), musician Marcel Abitbol, the father of protagonist Michael Abitbol, dies within the first four minutes of the film! If the rest of the film tries to piece together why Marcel abruptly left Casablanca in 1973 (to the sound of Marcel Abitbol’s music), it does not show the death of the father: it shows the dead body, the aftermath, the homage to the father, while the father himself is largely absent from the screen.

Such is not the case in Hicham Amal’s Morphine Melody (2013), that features a young composer who, after losing his inspiration to compose and yen for life, finds new creative ideas for his opus magnus from the very cries of pain of his dying father. Here, although he is heard a lot, he is ill, powerless, dependent and facing his impending death. In that, he is the same father as Ayouch’s or Lakhmari’s, or, for that matter Mohamed Ismaïl’s Des…Espoirs / Despair (2015) powerless, and destitute father figure. In this film, the protagonist’s father is alcoholic, poor, passive, and dominated by his second wife (after she first abandoned him and his son, Amine). Eventually, he is slain by her in front of his son. The ensuing trauma causes Amine to have serious problems with women throughout his life.

A father’s premature death causes irreparable damage to his children, as is also clearly shown in Mohamed Chrif Tribak’s Petits Bonheurs / Happy Moments: the father has just died at the opening of the narrative and his absence entails economic and emotional hardship on his young widow and teen-age daughter.

Again, in Saïd Khallaf’s A Mile in My Shoes, the protagonist’s father dies when Saïd is a child. Saïd murders his stepfather (an ogre-like character who embodies the bad father-figure). Yet the assassination is literally staged: the film juxtaposes theatrical scenes with non-theatrical ones, and the death of the father is filmed like a ritualistic murder on an empty stage, lit by an unforgiving spotlight. This film won the grand prix at the National Film Festival.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I did not mention Driss Chouikha’s Resistance, a national epic about decolonization that starts in 1953. The hero, Abderrahmane, a young freedom fighter, has lost his (good) father who died at the hands of the French, and marries a young woman whose father is a collaborator of the colonizer. Abderrahmane’s people execute the (bad) father-in-law (causing some degree of discomfort in Abderrahmane’s marriage…). In this film, the masculine figure of undisputed authority, the King, is only perceived via the roaring engine of his approaching plane above, and cheers of the expectant crowd amassed below. Here, the absence or remoteness of the good father verges on the sacred. The filmed death of the father is only that of the bad father. The good father remains soundlessly off screen, untouched.

Florence Martin

The Non-Fabulous Destiny of Najat Benssalem: Raja Bent El Mellah, Abdellah El Jaouhary, 2015 (70 minutes)

This documentary has haunted me ever since I saw it at the National Film Festival in Tangier in late February. Who is Raja? Is it Jacques Doillon’s protagonist (in his film Raja, 2003), played by Najat Benssalem, whose brilliant performance earned her two awards for best actress in Venice and in Marrakesh? Is it “the daughter of the old district” of Marrakesh, a poor section of town where she barely survives? El Jaouhary deploys his narrative between these two identities.

The film opens under the limelight of the Marrakesh International Film Festival: the young actress is called to the stage to receive her award and does not show up. We are told that Najat has been caught in one of those epic traffic jams. A young French female producer even adds that it is so like Najat to be late…

The camera flips to Najat who has arrived, but without an invitation, most probably because she has not received it – she was sent one but her address keeps changing. She lives a life off the grid in all senses of the term. Hence Najat is standing outside the Palais des Congrès, unable to produce the required invitation, and the guards do not let her in. Since then, every December, Najat goes to the Palais des Congrès and tries to get in the world of cinema she was briefly part of, and in which she craves to be. Yet the same story repeats itself in a depressing loop: she cannot get in. As the documentary proceeds, several readings of her exclusion emerge: a racist one, a classist one, a gross injustice, bad luck. Even her male co-star in Raja, Paul Grégory, evokes mektoub: “it was not her destiny” to be part of the Festival!…

The narrative of the documentary sits gingerly at the confluence of old fairy tales and a new spin on neo-realist cinema. A destitute young woman in the old city of Marrakesh is suddenly chosen to play a role in a French film. She lives an enchanted life during the shoot, becomes a recognized star, to then return to her former place and status. The magic of cinema does not have the power of a good old fairy godmother: the ball is short-lived. Cinderella remains Cinderella.

This is almost a moral tale: when a poor young Moroccan inner-city woman whose destiny is not to become a movie star actually becomes one, she is denied access to the limelight.

Najat Benssalem
Najat Benssalem

It is the story of a transformation that goes awry – literally, physically so. At the beginning of the film, Najat looks like Raja: a slim young woman who, equipped with boxing gloves, earns a meager living by wrestling with customers on the Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakesh. As she walks around the city in pants and T-shirt, she exudes an austere, almost androgynous kind of beauty, her body limb and lithe. Some cinema people interviewed in the film say she cannot find a part in any of the films that are produced on site because her body does not fit the Moroccan standard of feminine voluptuous beauty. Two years later, she has ballooned up and no longer resembles Raja, her former image on screen. She survives by selling individual cigarettes to passers-by, and adds layers of strange-looking clothes in the winter to keep herself warm. In the end, she looks like an odd, overgrown child in a pair of warm garish pink pyjamas walking around Jemaa el Fna, offering cigarettes to strangers…

Najat was in attendance at the festival in Tangier, in her new large body, her eyes blinking under the flashes of cameras as she exited the film projection at the Roxy Theater. I wondered whether we would see her next December in Marrakesh around the Palais des Congrès where she returns like a moth attracted to a ruthless burning light.

Florence Martin