Monthly Archives: March 2017

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

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