Tag Archives: Moroccan Cinema

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

 

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

IDFA 2017

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

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

Checking out the Extras

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

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

Watching Films together

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

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

Wardrobe tests

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

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

Ali Essafi

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

 

Stefanie Van de Peer

Noureddine Lakhmari’s Burnout: the anti moucharabieh cinema!

 

On set – Burnout

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

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

Poster Burnout (2017, Lakhmari)

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

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

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

Noureddine Lakhmari

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

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

 

Florence Martin

Berinale: Hicham Lasri’s Headbang Lullaby

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.

Headbang Lullaby (2017)

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.

Headbang Lullaby (2017)

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.

TRAILER: click here.

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.

Will Higbee

International Film Festival in Marrakech, December 2015

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).Marrakech 13

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.

Red carpet at Marrakech 2015, with audience (c) Justine Atkinson
Red carpet at Marrakech 2015, with audience (c) Justine Atkinson

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.

Florence Martin

Karyan Bollywood (Yassine Fennane, Morocco, 2015)

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.

Poster Karyan Bollywood
Poster Karyan Bollywood

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.

Florence Martin