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.
Moroccan cinema is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. It was the highlight of the 19th edition of the National Film Festival in Tangier (9-18 March 2018). Something else was visible in Tangier: Moroccan cinema is a house divided against itself.
Attended by the 4-member TMC team, the festival showcased the diversity of Moroccan cinema today by screening over 30 long and short films produced over the last 12 months. Films ranged from the finely executed (House in the Fields,Volubilis), the experimental (Jahiliya), the hollow and prententious (Razzia, Burnout, The Howl of the Soul), to the avowedly simple and popular (Korsa,Lahnech). The annual festival also revealed some cracks and structural problems in the edifice of Moroccan cinema. This should in no way be interpreted as meaning that this divided house will not stand for a few more decades.
Born out of the ashes of colonial cinema and the urgency of nation-building following the country’s independence in 1956, Moroccan cinema has grown spectacularly over time so much so it resembles its old self less and less every year. The identity of Moroccan cinema today is multifaceted; it has no single direction or common style. This diversity was there for all to witness during the national film festival in rainy old Tangier in March. The first category of films on show consisted of ‘made-for-TV’ comedies and dramas meant for a Moroccan audience first and foremost. The veteran actor and filmmaker Abdellah Ferkous (b. 1965) was at it again with his widely appreciated Korsa (2018). The mere presence of Ferkous in the male lead role of the film was enough for the movie to get the audience hooked to their seats. The road-movie comedy follows on the footsteps of the previous Ferkous box office hit El Ferrouj (2015).Korsauses the same recipe for success by tackling topical societal issues from below whilst shying from technical experimentation.
The second comedy is set in Rabat, which has recently become a familiar site in Morocco cinema. Even though Lahnech had been released and widely watched in national cinema theatres since early December 2017, it drew huge crowds to French-owned Mégarama’s Tangier multiplex for two simultaneous screenings in the late evening. The film uses a constellation of popular actors in the main roles including Aziz Dadas and the eternally young Majdouline Idrissi. Dadas plays the central role as a fake traffic warden. The actor is a popular face on Moroccan television and cinema. Much like Ferkous, he is perceived as weld cha’ab(lit. ‘son of the people’), hence his popularity and ability to represent the majority of Moroccans. Class is increasingly becoming a dominant lens through which Moroccans perceive themselves on screen.
The other category of films at the national film festival was made of ‘world cinema’ products clearly made to satisfy international audience tastes and hopefully some domestic ones as well. This second category is sometimes labeled ‘festival cinema’. It is frequently attacked in the local media and by Morocco-base intellectuals for some of its films’ militantly exotic and occasionally Orientalist framing of Moroccan culture and society. Film critics love to hate them with few exceptions. However, these films are often appreciated at festivals even in Morocco, where they usually win first prizes including at the national film fest, thanks to technical quality and aesthetic accomplishment.
The film which won most prizes, including the Grand Prix, in Tangier this year is Volubilisby Faouzi Bensaïdi. The film has been widely acclaimed by film critics in Morocco since its premiere in Rabat in November 2017. As the Paris-based Bensaïdi admitted in an interview with the TMC team on the morning of the prize announcement day, the film is one of cinematic maturity and has been made with a wider audience in mind. However, Bensaïdi warned us that the next film would be like his previous essay works prior to Volubilis.
Other remarkable films of this second category on show at the national film festival this year were House in the Fields (2017) by Tala Hadid. The documentary lovingly chronicles the everyday and breathtaking natural beauty of an Amazigh village in the High Atlas. The central characters are Fatima and Khadija. The former is getting ready to be married to a village youth who works and lives away in Casablanca. The film portrays the characters and their environment with much love and a subtlety that is often lacking in films about the Atlas mountains. It should have own more than the festival’s Editing Prize. Hadid’s first feature film The Narrow Frame of Midnight won the festival’s Grand Prix in 2015. Another film in this category which is also partly set in the High Atlas is Nabil Ayouch’s much mediatised Razzia(2017). It hugely disappointed a large section of the festival audience due to its runaway narrative fragmentation and reduction of Morocco to a few clichés (backward Berbers, Muslim fanatics, anti-Semites and prostitutes) to satisfy the average western viewer’s image of Morocco. More successful and appreciated was Narjiss Nejjar’s fourth feature film Apatride(2018). The story of a 34-year old woman bent on finding her Algerian mother from whom she was separated when 45,000 Moroccans were banished from Algeria following Morocco’s annexation of the Spanish-occupied Sahara in 1975, Apatridewon the Production Prize for Lamia Chraïbi. Chraibi also won the same prize for Jahiliya(2018) by Hicham Lasri, who reaped the Director’s Prize.
It is clear that the type of audience the filmmakers have in mind has come to define the look and nature of Moroccan films. The CCM has encouraged this division since the early 2000s by awarding funding to both popularand festivalcamps of Moroccan cinema. The commercial films like Korsaand Lahnechare meant to entertain domestic audiences and thus keep film houses in business. The arthouse and/or transnational films like Volubilisare there to represent Morocco in the international scene by featuring and hopefully winning prizes at global film festivals. Despite this policy, the CCM and filmmakers in both camps have entertained the desire to speak to all audiences and therefore create a more cohesive Moroccan cinema. This explains the popular edge in Bensaïdi’s Volubilis. The film has not yet be released in national cinemas, but it is not likely to do outstandingly even though it is significantly more accessible than the director’s previous works. No film has succeeded in satisfying international and national audiences at the same since Nabil Ayouch’s Ali Zaoua(2000). The CCM has not been able to help. No one seems to know exactly the success formula, including Ayouch who has not able to replicate his rare accomplishment. Hence the sense of division and loss of direction in Moroccan cinema. Filmmakers will have to keep trying hard to bridge the gap between Moroccan and international viewers and points of view. Meanwhile, Ferkous will go on making his popular comedies and Bensaïdi his cinephilic essays.
Between the two categories, a lot of films fall through the cracks. They are forgotten almost as soon as they are made. They neither win prizes internationally nor attract filmgoers at home. Unfortunately, this represents the third and major category of Moroccan films today. The CCM needs to find a way to reform this part of Moroccan cinema’s divided house at 60.
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.
FICAM’s focus on African films and its Pan-African attitude towards animation, which I mentioned in the previous blog entry, is evident in the programming of Cameroonian feature-length animation, Minga and the Broken Spoon, by Claye Edou, in the competition. Claye told me that the directors of the festival approached him when the film was still in post-production, and Claye was astounded to find it had been selected. He intended the film for Cameroonian audiences, and never expected it to travel beyond his country’s borders. And yet it did…
The film is based on a local folk tale and is the very first animated film from Cameroon. It had its premier in November in Cameroon, and Claye told me he was not expecting the film to travel at all. He saw his completion of it, and the success it has had inside Cameroon, as his major achievement. But the film is doing so well in Morocco since this first screening, that Claye has ended up travelling the breadth and length of the country to show it at ten locations in Morocco, to packed screening rooms of very excited and appreciative children. Claye is ecstatic that the film, based on a local story, is so accessible to other cultures as well and now hopes it will travel further still.
The story centres around Minga, a young, beautiful orphan who lives with her cruel stepmother Mami Kaba and her selfish step-sister. Mami Kaba is a malevolent woman in the typical evil stepmother mould (like in Cinderella) who does not hesitate to give all the hard work in the household to Minga. However, Minga does not mind hard work, and she goes about her daily routines dancing and singing. One day, she breaks Mami Kaba’s precious spoon as she washes the dishes in the river. This sparks a fury during which Mami Kaba expels Minga from the family home in order to find the only existing duplicate of this spoon, which belonged to Minga’s mother. It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. How will Minga deal on her own in the jungle, and how will she overcome the dangers and difficulties presented to her on her way?
The film is a beautifully designed computer animation, on which Claye Edou worked for 3.5 years, with a team of 50 people (including singers, artists and technicians), all the while continuing his full-time job as an accountant. Wizards, magical beasts and enchanting dreams of the past and the future help Minga on her way to overcome adversity and to find the love of her life. The film carries elements of the already-mentioned Cinderella and other princess stories so popular in international fairy tales and is, perhaps precisely because of these universal elements, widely enjoyed.
In a bilingual country like Cameroon, where one half of the film industry has Nollywood-scale ambitions and the other half is dependent on French money, Claye Edou’s first feature length animated film is something of a miracle. This feature length animation is an immense achievement, because – as Florent Coulon shows – the last cinemas in the country were closed in 2009 and filmmaking has since been very minimal. Edou is a young, enterprising and idealistic filmmaker who created Cledley Productions in 2014, specifically to create Minga. It is the result of his passion for art and for telling stories. He is a national award-winning portrait painter, inspired by design and the desire to present oral stories from his own culture. An animation studio based in Douala, Cameroon, Cledley Productions now aims to present to a wider international audience the traditional local oral heritage, and the musical culture of the various regions in Cameroon beyond the Cameroonian borders. With Minga and The Broken SpoonCledley Productions also wants to reposition Cameroonian cinema at the centre of African animation, by becoming a true pioneer of animated film in the sub-region.
Another feature film we loved in particular was 1917 – La vérité sur octobre// 1917 – The Real October,an animated documentary with live-action interjections,in which Katrin Rothe looks at the lives and times of five artistic-intellectual individuals in the months running up to the October Revolution in 1917’s Russia. She paints a larger picture of the global events, but focuses on the thoughts, diaries, notes and poems by five influential historical figures who have been studied to death by academics and historians. It’s good to see Rothe revive and reanimate them. Unlike the greater historical studies, this film focuses on individual thoughts, details and everyday events. As such, Rothe reveals innermost thoughts, and shows how these characters change their alliances or hold onto their ideals and belief systems. The five main characters are worth mentioning.
Firstly, I loved the characterisation of Zinaida Gippius. A very strong, influential and assured woman, she was the lyricist of symbolism and a famous literary critic who acted as the grande dame of St. Peterburg’s literature and philosophy salon. Her image and recreation in bubble-wrap and cardboard is particularly striking and her face is beautifully captured through layers of paper. In the face of the events surrounding and threatening to drown her, she loses faith in the power of poetry and turns to diaries, becoming in her own words a ‘chronicler’ of events. There is a startling contrast between the throwaway materials that make her image and the value she places on pen and paper to record what she is living through. Secondly, Maxim Gorky was – and is to this day – an internationally known and revered author. He was a dedicated critic of the Tsarist regime. One of the most interesting things in the film is how there was a sliver of doubt and a change of heart in Gorky’s politics during these turbulent times. This was not the case for Vladimir Mayakovsky, the young and revolutionary poet. In the film he’s portrayed as a bit of a Cockney geezer and a chancer, an edgy performance poet of his times. His arrival on screen is often heralded by free-style beat-boxing. He’s particularly proud of the part his own sloganeering poetry plays in the revolution, when the Bolsheviks chant two of his lines:
“munch your pineapple, gobble your grouse, your last day’s coming you bourgeois louse!”
The fourth of the main characters is Alexandre Benois, one of the most important art critics of his time, shown to be emotionally very affected by the revolution and the destruction of artistic heritage. When I spoke to Rothe about the film, I pointed out how affected I was by the tears that rolled down Benois’ face, and how real they looked. She joked that water is very visible on paper faces, and that his glasses emphasise his eyes. Lastly, for me the most aesthetically strong character was Kazimir Malevich, a painter, mystic and art theorist who was a pioneer of geometric abstract art. He sympathised with anarchist-individualistic principles. His depiction in cubist clothes and his square head was very effective, specifically in the bright colours (as opposed to the serene white of Zinaida and the dull beiges and browns of Benois and Mayakovsky). These five individuals and their thoughts, reflections and writings paint a much clearer and recognisable situation.
It is also remarkable how Rothe, whose dedication to documentary and animation has made her an artist of some renown, dedicated three of her days at FICAM to workshops with young Moroccan documentary students. This collaboration was established by Hamid Aïdouni, friend of the TMC project and leader of the Tétouan student film festival we wrote about in a previous blog (here). His dedication to the development of confident film students reveals a deep-seated belief in the future of Moroccan filmmaking, and even animation, a form of filmmaking often forgotten about in the country. Rothe’s film has been touring the globe on the film festival circuit, attending both those dedicated to documentary and to animation. In the introduction to the screening of the film, the director of the festival talked about how far FICAM and the freedom of speech elements in Moroccan politics have come: he pointed out that just a few years ago, this sort of political/critical film would not have been allowed to screen in Morocco.
The third feature film we saw was Nelly & Simon: Mission Yetiby Nancy Florence Savard and Pierre Greco. A hilarious caper for children, this film elicited lots of applause and loud laughter, and the filmmaker acknowledged this gratefully, saying that the Moroccan audience is one of her favourites, precisely for these reasons. The story follows impulsive and stubborn Nelly Maloye, a private detective, who joins the fastidious and pragmatic young scientist Simon Picard in Quebec in 1956, on his research trip to the Himalayas, to prove the existence of the Yeti. He believes that he can prove his hypothesis that the Yeti is the missing link in human evolution. Frustrated and nearing the end of his research grant, he is given a three-month reprieve by a wealthy yet caddish investor. Using an explorer’s journal that supposedly contains the location of the mythical creature’s den, Simon and Nelly must learn to combine their methodological and improvisational approaches if they are going to be able to navigate the challenging terrain. With Tensing (perhaps named after the Sherpa from Hillary’s 1953 Everest expedition?), their young guide, and Jasmin, a chatty myna bird, by their side, they face countless adventures and dangers in a beautiful and dangerous terrain. The film took 8 years to complete, is a gem of 3D and showcases the Canadian National Film Board’s investment in animation.
Finally, I want to mention another of our favourite feature-length films, which eventually also won the competition: Un Homme est Mortor A Man is Dead. Adapted for the screen by Olivier Cossu from an graphic novel of the same title by Kris and Etienne Davodeau and looking like Tintin for grown-ups, Un Homme Est Mort takes its title from a poem by surrealist poet Paul Eluard.
Un homme est mort qui n’avait pour défense
Que ses bras ouverts à la vie
Un homme est mort qui n’avait d’autre route
Que celle où l’on hait les fusils
Un homme est mort qui continue la lutte
Contre la mort contre l’oubli
Car tout ce qu’il voulait
Nous le voulions aussi
Nous le voulons aujourd’hui
Que le bonheur soit la lumière
Au fond des yeux au fond du cœur
Et la justice sur la terre
Il y a des mots qui font vivre
Et ce sont des mots innocents
Le mot chaleur le mot confiance
Amour justice et le mot liberté
Le mot enfant et le mot gentillesse
Et certains noms de fleurs et certains noms de fruits
Le mot courage et le mot découvrir
Et le mot frère et le mot camarade
Et certains noms de pays de villages
Et certains noms de femmes et d’amies
Péri est mort pour ce qui nous fait vivre
Tutoyons-le sa poitrine est trouée
Mais grâce à lui nous nous connaissons mieux
Tutoyons-nous son espoir est vivant.
The use of the poem is no mere literary affectation designed to inject the film with a sense of gravitas: this comes naturally when Eluard is given the highest accolade a poet can hope for, to see his poem taken and rendered into the language of the people. Taking place during the workers’ strikes in Brest, France in 1950, this film follows two childhood friends (Petit Zef and Désiré) after their other close friend Edouard has been shot dead in the head by police during a demonstration. A sympathetic filmmaker, René Vautier, is brought in by the Union head to document the grinding poverty of the workers on strike while they push for better pay as they rebuild the war-torn town of Brest. Vautier, it is mentioned in the film, has just returned from making Afrique 50(1956), a strongly anti-colonialist documentary, which made him fall deeply out of favour with the French government. In Brest, Petit Zef and Désiré become his initially reluctant filming assistants and guides. The idea of a film within a film is not new, but the very act of making this documentary film restores a sense of worth and determination to the town and the film reaches its peak towards the end when Petit Zef (who is illiterate) is given the task of reciting Paul Eluard’s poem to accompany a screening of the film to the town. He begins to recite what he knows by heart and then begins to speak in his own words from the heart.
What FICAM shows then, is the inspired, varied internationalist approach to its programme and the direct relevance and inspiration that comes from this selection to its often very young Moroccan audiences. The fact that we saw challenging political films as well as folklore-based fairy tales and humorous detective capers, speaks volumes of the international quality of this festival. Likewise, the attention paid to its filmmakers, the networking opportunities for young filmmakers and students with the more experienced artists, and even the pan-African vibe in some of the best films here, really excited me as an audience member and as a festival researcher. FICAM has great international ambitions and the attentive directors of the festival really work with a vision for the future of the form in mind – both internationally as with regard for students of filmmaking in Morocco itself. Long may it continue…
Next week, in the last blog entry on Meknes, we will reflect on the only Moroccan film in the short film competition: Ayamby Sofia El Khayari.
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.
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