Lakhmari’s Burnout has just been released in Morocco and it is quite an event! It came out on October 11 in the major cities (where there are still movie theaters…).
When I saw Noureddine Lakhmari in Tangier briefly the week before, he had told me how Moroccan cinema was not what Moroccan tourism was about: “it is not about the food, the tiles, the camels – have you seen many camels around here?… it is about a reality people can relate to, a daily life they know, an urban landscape they can identify, not a cleaned up, orientalist version of themselves.”
Then I saw Burnout, the last part of his trilogy after Casanegra (2009) and Zero (2012). Again, the Casablancais are the focus of this film, but, rather than showing them in a ghettoized fashion, along separate destinies, Lakhmari decides to have them cross one another’s paths. Although some critics in Morocco have marveled at how lushly the white city is portrayed, I tend to disagree: Casablanca is shot mostly in interiors, and/or mostly at night, as the camera follows the various characters whose itineraries intersect. The film is not about Casablanca’s wide cityscape but rather focuses on the pointed intersections Casablanca may provide for people from the top 1% (Ines, the manager of an art gallery and her husband Jad; a rich artist; a corrupt politician on the Islamist side of the spectrum) to bump into the shrinking middle-class (a student in medical school struggling to make ends meet) and the poor class of the street shoe shiners (a motley crew of kids hired by a man in love with a one-legged woman who can never find work).
If it is about Casablanca, then it is about how the economical capital of Morocco allows its infinitely socially layered population to circulate and at times bump into one another. As a result, unpredictable encounters can happen in the city, some of them violent (the student and the politician, a kid and his so-called “uncle”), some of them magical. Among the latter, Ayoub, the shoeshine boy (played by Ilyas el Jihani, L’Orchestre des aveugles, Mohamed Mouftakir, 2015) meets Jad, the rich man whose father frustrated his dream of becoming a car racer.
These uneasy temporary joining of characters are filmed straight on, resulting in drama or humor (there is a bitter-sweet hilarious scene in a restaurant where the waiter describes the menu in perfect Nouvelle Cuisine French to a befuddled, darija-speaking audience of first-timers used to entirely different food and places). The image is sleek, very clear, the close ups on Jad’s facial scar, on the shoeshine boys‘ dirty skin and clothes, on a beggar’s nails black with grime are detailed, almost hyper-realistic. Lakhmari is clearly intent on showing us the gaping differences between people sharing the same spot with ruthless clarity and from as close up as possible: this is not a view from afar. As a result, we, as viewers, do not experience a panoramic view of the city from a protected moucharabieh: we can almost smell the urine and the sweat in the slums, and we feel the pain of Aida as she screams.
Some of Lakhmari’s themes and images from the previous two films are still present here: women are tough; men are violent, abusive; there is yet another impotent man (this time not old but middle-aged) and the character is slowly becoming crippled. This time, however, he will not die during the filmic narrative…
Obviously, Lakhmari does not want to hide his truth and does not want Moroccans to be tourists in their own landscape. Yet, in the end, you leave the theater with the laughter of Ayoub and Jad in your ears – perhaps a sliver of hope.
For the third successive year, Moroccan director Hicham Lasri found himself being welcomed by festival audiences in Berlin, as his fifth feature film, Headbang Lullaby (2016) – following Starve Your Dog in 2016 and The Sea is Behind in 2015 – made its world premiere in the Panorama Special section of the 2017 Berlinale. The film has also been screened this past week at the National Film Festival in Tangiers and is a Moroccan-French co-production that also befitted from funding from the Doha Film Institute (Qatar).
It is worth dwelling for a moment on just what a significant achievement this is. There can be few contemporary filmmakers from anywhere in the world whose work has appeared in three successive editions of the Berlinale. The fact that Lasri has become a regular in the Panorama section of one of world’s most important film festivals is testament to his originality, energy and creative vision as an emerging Moroccan auteur; factors that undoubtedly play well with cinephile festival audiences. This is especially true of the Panorama section of the Berlinale, which, by the festival’s own admission, aims to ‘offer insights on new directions in art house cinema’ and where auteur films such as Lasri’s traditionally form the heart of the progamme.
However, the frequency of Lasri’s recent appearances at the Berlianle is also more than that. It is an indication of how his particular style of low-budget, auteur-led production allows him to move rapidly from development to production and post-production in the time that other filmmakers are still agonizing over the first draft of their screenplay. Given how rare Lasri’s considerable success at the Berlinale over the past three years has been, it is surprising that he has not received more recognition for this achievement either within Morocco or from the CCM. There was no mention, for example (or none that I could see) of Lasri’s success at the Moroccan stand run by the CCM in the European Film Market in Berlin, whereas other national film agency stands in the market were falling over themselves to highlight the success of their national filmmakers at the festival. One possible explanation for this could have to do with the fact that Lasri was controversially denied the final tranche of funding (worth more than 1 million MAD) of the avance sur recettes, because the final proposed edit of the film was – according to the communication to the director from the CCM – deemed to have been too far removed (“especially in terms of the quality of production”) from the project as it was originally submitted to the commission for the avance sur recettes. [For more information on this: click here].
The screening of Headbang Lullaby that I attended in a cinema just off Postdamer Platz, at the centre of the festival site, was enthusiastically received by a near-capacity crowd and followed by a Q&A with the director and members of the cast. Headbang Lullaby continues the experimentation with form and style as well as the concern with recent Moroccan history found in Lasri’s earlier works, maintaining the (by now characteristic) frenetic energy of the mobile camera combined with striking composition. His work is also reminiscent of one of the greatest of all African filmmakers, Djibril Diop Mambety, who chose to apply his distinctive creative style to scenarios where magical realism and the surreal or absurd collide with the everyday struggles and political realities facing ordinary and often forgotten members of African society. The main difference, I would say, between the two directors is that Lasri is less successful in achieving the emotional connection with the characters that was always present in Mambety’s films.
In fairness to Lasri, however, in Headbang Lullaby this distanciation from the main character is partly the point. Daoud, a world-weary policeman who sustained a head injury during the bread riots of 1981, has been left with a metal plate in his head as a result of the injury and a neurological condition, which means he is unable to register emotion. A few years after the injury and set against a backdrop of Morocco’s famous but unexpected victory over Portugal in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Daoud is sent on a mission to guard an architecturally elaborate but seemingly pointless bridge over a highway that separates two small villages, whose inhabitants are openly hostile towards one another. The pretext of Daoud guarding the bridge is to maintain order between the villagers as Hassan II and his entourage are expected to travel on the road. This information has been transformed by the local rumour mill into the ‘fact’ that Hassan II has the express intention of visiting both villages, thus causing excitement amongst the villagers and hurried preparations to welcome the king’s arrival.
In cinematic terms, the film’s use of colour (the brightly coloured plastic ribbons on top of the bridge that fly in the wind), camera movement, composition and strange/extreme camera angles, render the mundane and functional space of the bridge as a surreal, almost psychedelic frontier between the neighbouring villages – a point of conflict and unexpected contact between Daoud and the locals he comes into contact with.
Whilst maintaining Lasri’s interest in mining the more painful aspects of Morocco’s recent past, whose impact and effects continue to resonate today, the film is nonetheless interspersed with moments of physical comedy and lighter humour than that which tends to be found in his earlier films. As Lasri acknowledged in the Q&A following the festival screening, it was important for him to allow his characters the ability to look up; to raise their heads and acknowledge the vast blue sky above them – refusing their status as downtrodden and atomized victims of history or society and embracing the possibilities of forging meaningful connections on a human and societal level. The final moments of Headbang Lullaby thus allow for a glimpse of genuine community amongst different sections of Moroccan society (albeit presented in allegorical form) and the possibility of reconciliation and moving beyond the divisive violence of the past.
Ultimately, as one reviewer at the Berlinale noted, for all of Headbang Lullaby’s visual inventiveness and creativity, the narrative’s ‘lack of clear focus and opaque message might prove a challenge for wider audiences’. There is also a question as to how far local Moroccan audiences will find Lasri’s auteurist approach accessible, presuming that they are able to see the film in Moroccan cinemas. However, as the endorsement for the third year running from the Berlinale shows, and judging by the apparently positive response to the film at the National Festival (according to other members of the TMC team who were able to attend Tangiers), in Hicham Lasri, Moroccan cinema has a dynamic and experimental auteur whose style seems, unfortunately, to be the exception that proves the rule. It is to be hoped that the CCM and Moroccan cinema more generally find the structures and identify the funding that can support the emergence of a new generation of Moroccan filmmakers who share Lasri’s creativity and originality and can find a space both at home and abroad for their work to be recognized.
The 15th edition of the International Festival in Marrakech was rich in tributes to international stars (US Bill Murray, Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, Korean director Park Chan-Wook, actor Willem Dafoe, as well as Moroccan director of photography Kamal Derkaoui) and to Canadian cinema. With a wide choice of films from India to Mexico, from Kazakhstan to the Ivory Coast, the festival showcased a wide international array of films, with the screening – off competition – of only six long features out of eighty-five from Morocco (and a seventh, Black, by Moroccan directors Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah, funded by Belgium).
Two among the latter were greeted with thunderous applause: La Isla (Ahmed Boulane, Morocco and Spain, 2015) and La Marche verte (Youssef Britel, Morocco, 2015). The former’s narrative, a comic spin on Robinson Crusoe in today’s Mediterranean, features a famous comedian in Morocco, Abdellah Ferkous, whose mere appearance on screen triggered an enthusiastic welcome from the audience. Based on the 2002 territorial dispute over the tiny island of Perejil, this comedy tells two tales: the first one focuses on an ordinary policeman, Ibrahim, sent on a mission to monitor the moves of migrants from Africa on a tiny desert island in the Mediterranean near Tangier. One day, Ibrahim finds African migrant Mamadou (Issa N’Diaye) just as Robinson his Friday. The second one is the story of a brewing international conflict. As soon as Ibrahim hoists his Moroccan flag (to the enthusiastic applause of the audience in the Palais des Congrès in Marrakech), the Spanish Bureau, even the American one, start fretting about what they see as an abrupt take-over of the island by Morocco.
The second film, La Marche verte, relates Hassan II’s historic call to the Moroccan people on October 16 1975 to “reclaim the provinces of the South” (aka Western Sahara). It then follows the 350,000 volunteers who boarded trucks in all the provinces of Morocco, headed south and crossed the border into a territory controlled at the time by Spain. The only army shown on screen is the Spanish troops who, upon seeing civilians (especially women and children), do not shoot. The film shows no real visible presence of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces and suggests that the Green March was completely peaceful. Here again, many in the Palais des Congrès applauded with gusto, as they watched the massive crowd walk across the Southern border, the flag of the kingdom flying high.
The wild clapping and cheering from certain sections of the audience thus welcomed a similar message delivered along two distinct modes (a popular comedy vs. a national epic): in these times of uncertainty, the Kingdom’s vigilance continues to protect its borders against all outside threats.
Karyan Bollywood is Yassine Fennane’s first feature film, after several shorts (Petite blessure / Tiny wound, 2002; Danger man, The Future Is Now, Chemise blanche, cravate noire, and Trust fighter, 2004) and three films for TV for the Film Industry/Made in Morocco project under Nabil Ayouch as well as a series, Une Heure en enfer, co-authored with Eli El Mejboud for the Al Aoula channel in Morocco. The film received the Prix de la première oeuvre (First film award) at the 2015 National Film Festival in Tangiers.
At first, Karyan Bollywood can be seen as a filmic illustration of Salman Rushdie’s “chutnification”: his flavorful image to describe a post-colonial cultural state of hybridity would thus be transposed to a Moroccan film. Casablanca’s discontents and dreams = Mumbai’s. The narrative circles around a Bollywood classic, in both form and content, the dream of the singing and dancing hero forever paralleled and contrasted with the rank reality of the slums outside Casablanca.
The protagonist is obsessed with the 1982 film Disco Dancer (by Babbar Subhash, India) that his now deceased projectionist father showed him when he was a kid, a film that, his father said, contains the answers to all questions. Jimmy adopts the name and dress of its hero, his bedroom is an altar to Bollywood and disco, he lives in a state of arrested development that starts and stops with Disco Dancer. Of course, he is in love with Mouna, the dream girl who lives on the other side of the tracks, and whose bourgeois demeanor rubs up his pal, Houda, the wrong way. In order to get to her, the dazzled thirty-year old dreamer decides to shoot a remake of Dirty Dancer with a “borrowed” IPhone, in the slums. The destruction of the latter is imminent, under the harsh command of a cruel villain: Barkour (who turns out to be Houda’s father, the exact opposite of Jimmy’s father: he is alive, and abandoned Houda and his mother while Jimmy’s father, like a benevolent ancestor, may be dead but still haunts his son in a caring fashion).
The film is a mix of comedy and fantasy (the viewer is presented with Jimmy’s dreamscape at all times), a comedy and a satirical comment on the “people at the margins” as Yassine Fennane is fond of saying, caught between abject poverty and the destruction of home. Change is not easy: neither for Jimmy who has to grow up, nor for the slum dwellers afraid of an even greater economic hardship if they move out. Similarly, cinema may help (Jimmy’s father, the projectionist, finds meaning in film; the slum dwellers finally see themselves on screen at the end of the film) but ultimately does not (it repeats a dreamscape in a loop without changing a thing). The homage to Bollywood (Indian films have been shown forever in Morocco), like a distorting mirror, provides a sliver of escape before it turns back to not even neo-realism but hyper-realism in its depiction of the Casablanca outcasts.
The philosopher and former head of the CCM (Centre du Cinéma Marocain) was in his native city to attend the 20th edition of the Salon International de Tanger des Livres et des Arts, organized by the French Institute. The theme this year was “Tangiers as a Symbolic City: from Fantasy to Reality”. Asked to address cinema in Tangiers, Saïl took a detour via the cinema houses of his childhood and teenage years. He developed a Tangerine topography of picture-houses along the two axes of space and time: the medina corresponded to early childhood; the larger city of Tangiers to teen-age years. He first evoked two old movie theaters that are now reduced to spectral architectural presences in the city: The Capitol and the Alcazar.
The Capitol specialized in westerns, and introduced the six or seven year old to John Ford and his narrative strategies, and all sorts of other American films. The films were dubbed in Spanish (the city still had its international status at the time) – so much so that Saïl would be shocked to discover, at age thirteen, that Cary Grant actually spoke English! The second theater, L’Alcazar, specialized in Spanish and Mexican romance and comedy. It was the theater where Joselito was the singing star of El Pequeño Rosiñol. The children had no clue Franquist Spain was busy spreading its messages through the charming little boy. They sang with him…
As the Tangerine children grew to reach the ripe age of ten, the circuit of movie theaters would widen and include Cinéma Vox, “the total capital of Egyptian cinema”. This is where they discovered Anwar Wagdi’s 1949 Egyptian classic Ghazal al Banat / The Flirtation of Girls, finally released in Tangier in 1957. To Saïl, this was “a complete earthquake of the senses, each component of the film having reached its utmost completeness”. The photography, the music, the dance, the range of emotions held the children under an enduring spell.
All these cinemas, Noureddine Saïl added, were part of the medina, i.e. steeped in an idyllic Tangier made of multiple cultures, languages, mores, religions, cuisines, in which people lived in a form of consensual conviviality. Stepping out of the perimeter of these picture houses through the Rue de la Liberté (sic!) meant venturing into a less colorful territory. But only there, at age fourteen, was he given the chance to see Buñuel’s surprising films at the Mauritania. This was a costly endeavor: all films at the Mauritania were twice the price of those at l’Alcazar. So the kids of Tangier would wait for “the film to come down to the Alcazar” for a couple of months, and resume their attendance at the old medina theater where the less intellectual films ended up… At the Mauritania, though, it was clearly the more complex films that attracted the teens.
“Through the Tangier of the time, we developed in a schizoid way (seeing films in all languages, speaking several ourselves) where, elsewhere, people develop in a paranoid way. Cinema was part of that.”