Category Archives: Marrakech

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

Transnational Moroccan Cinema with a dinghy

On my trip preparing for our research project’s first symposium in December and scouting for venues, caterers and hotels, I went to see La Isla de Perejil by “l’enfant terrible du cinéma marocain”, Ahmed Boulane. Florence Martin writes about it in her first blog entry, from 4 February 2016. The film and its director are part of the transnational injection into Moroccan cinema, as Ahmed Boulane himself comes from the former pirates’ republic of Salé, took on the Irish nationality, and made a film dealing with the absurd situation that caused an international incident between Spain and Morocco in 2002. Co-produced with Boulane-O’Bryne Production (Casablanca) and Maestranza Film (Sevilla), Boulane co-wrote it with Spaniard Carlos Dominguez. Boulane is best known for his second feature film, The Angels of Satan (2007), about a scandal that shook Moroccan sensibilities in 2003: the case of a group of young Moroccan heavy-metal rockers wrongly accused of being Satanists. The film became a real Moroccan box office hit in 2007.

Poster La Isla, Ahmed Boulane, 2015.
Poster La Isla, Ahmed Boulane, 2015.

One of the best discoveries watching La Isla de Perejil was the main actor: Abdellah Ferkous, with his quietly, tongue-in-cheek, playful style of comedy. His rotund looks, typical moustache and big cheeks give shape to the comic identity of this TV actor and his character in La Isla, Ibrahim, a soldier of the Auxiliary Forces. At the start of the film one gets a sense of his modest background, his simple life and his contentment with his small (and poor) family, living with their chickens. He likes simple pleasures such as coffee and food, and his satisfaction with life comes through in little rituals, visible for example in the manner in which he wakes up his children and the repeated stretching and washing of his hands and face.

Just before his retirement, Ibrahim is sent to the tiny Isla de Perejil on the northern coast of Morocco, whose sovereignty is disputed by Morocco and Spain. His mission is to monitor the passage of smugglers, illegal migrants and drug traffickers. His rituals continue on this island, although his radio contact with the mainland breaks up and he is alone apart from the company of a cockerel and a goat. One day, while bathing, Ibrahim discovers that the sea has washed ashore an illegal migrant from Senegal. Close to death, Mamadou is carried to Ibrahim’s makeshift home. At first he is treated with suspicion but Ibrahim slowly nurses him back to health, and the two characters bond over food, music and the radio Mamadou has brought along in a plastic bag. As they try to establish their means of survival, they become friends and Ibrahim protects Mamadou, his cockerel and his goat. When Mamadou suggests they eat the animals, Ibrahim is taken aback and assures the Senegalese man that he does not eat his friends. With the growing solidarity between the two men, the international incident that is brewing in the background, and of which they are completely ignorant, becomes ever more absurd: not only is the island tiny, the loneliness there brings two strangers and potential enemies together, while Spanish and Moroccan politicians direct a diplomatic conflict and a military attack on one another.

Watch the film’s trailer here.

Loosely based on an actual conflict between Spain and Morocco in 2002, this is a gentle farce that reverberates with political undertones. Not only does it look in some detail at the refugee crisis and the possibility of solidarity between Africans in their ‘fight’ against the European coloniser, it also makes fun of this coloniser in his inability to deal with Moroccan sovereignty. The film has a satirical bite to its treatment of the relationship between the Spanish and the Moroccans, but the postcolonial critique does not spare the ineptitude of Moroccan politicians either. The concept of nationhood, this film tells us, is hollow: the island is abandoned, but the moment someone sets foot on it and raises a faded, washed-out Moroccan flag (orange and yellow instead of bright red and green), the neo-colonialist tendencies of territorialism come flooding back. The absolute absurdity of this conflict is highlighted by the filmmaker, as he emphasizes the smallness of the island, and uses a comical actor as the single, middle aged soldier rather than the historical team of six Moroccan soldiers ‘invading’ the island with a dinghy.

Stefanie Van de Peer

The Petits Bonheurs of Women in Moroccan film

As Florence wrote in her blog on the death of the father in recent Moroccan films (15 March), Petits Bonheurs by Mohamed Chrif Tribak starts immediately after the death of a father and looks at the consequences for a poor widow Zineb and her seventeen-year-old daughter Nouffissa. However, the film does not reflect on this bereavement, and pragmatically looks forward at the future and dreams of a teenager in 1955 Morocco. In hindsight of course this is appropriate, as Morocco is about to gain independence, and the role of women is about to change dramatically. That this film focuses so singularly on women’s lives and roles, shows a turn in Moroccan cinema (even by men) towards the female sphere. I read a few similarities with some Tunisian films into this film.

Poster Petits Bonheurs, Cinema Colysee
Poster Petits Bonheurs, Cinema Colysee

As a widow unable to meet her and her daughter’s basic needs, Nouffissa’s mother is forced to accept the invitation from Lalla Amina, a wealthy woman, to settle at her large home. There is a suggestion that Amina and Zineb were “more than just friends” in the past. The film deals with girls’ education, domestic roles and appropriate dress sense. Within this large house in the medina of Tetouan, an ambiguous friendship parallel to Zineb and Lalla Amina’s develops between Nouffissa and Fetouma, granddaughter of Lalla Amina.

Perhaps the most interesting sequence is the group of women’s excitement about a new film with a famous, handsome actor, and their attendance at the cinema of this Egyptian melodrama. In the film, emotions run much higher than they do in Petits Bonheurs itself, but the experience of going to the cinema is a reason for excitement. The girls recall that just a few years ago they were hardly allowed to go outside. It is, as a matter of fact, Nouffissa’s first time at the cinema, and she looks in bewilderment at the screen, but also at the ‘rencontres’ between girls and boys around her. It makes her innocent outlook on love and marriage all the more endearing.

The two girls, both living under pressure of tradition moving into modernity, have divergent views. While Nouffissa does not wear the veil and Fetouma does, Fetouma embodies the rebellious girl, who rejects the idea of ​​early marriage and hopes to continue her studies, while Nouffissa would like to find a husband as she aspires upward social mobility. In this way, the film shows some parallels with Tunisian Nouri Bouzid’s Hidden Beauties (2012). Their relationship comes under pressure when Fetouma confesses she has had sex but is not interested in marriage, while Nouffissa hides from Fetouma her engagement to someone she does not know.

With exquisite detail, the film showcases the architectural, decorative and fashion trends of the 50s and 60. It also looks at both the modern and traditional styles and modes of thinking by women, and shows the power of the static camera and the reflexive, slow development of a simple, straightforward story. Careful with the male gaze, the camera and the director manage to remain unobtrusive fairly successfully, except when Fetouma acts on an instinctual and naïve act of lust on the impressionable Nouffissa.

Cinema Colysee, Gueliz, Marrakech
Cinema Colysee, Gueliz, Marrakech

The film offers a calm balance and a sense of peace with fate. While it does not totally eschew political or feminist rhetoric, it also does not foreground it. With this comes a certain risk taken by the director: the film shows some similarities with Tunisian Moufida Tlatli’s The Silence of the Palace (1994), but where Tlatli’s film is outspoken about women’s voices being drowned out by men and the uncertainties independence brings for North Africa, Petits Bonheurs seems more interested in a happy ending (see the title of the film, indicating little pleasures). I suspect this is where its accessibility lies, and its success with large local audiences. Garnering standing ovations and winning important prizes on the festival circuit inside Morocco, and being screened at the large multiplexes as well as the more discerning cinemas to large audiences, is proof of this film’s subtle yet permissible look into the past of Moroccan women. It is precisely the subtlety with which it acts that attracts a large female crowd to the cinema.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Najat Benssalem
Najat Benssalem

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

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

Florence Martin

Short Cuts Moroccan Style

The response to TMC’s call for applications for our two London Film School (LFS) bursaries was impressive both in terms of quantity (over 35 applications for 2 places) and in terms of the quality of the applicants.

With each applicant submitting two short films as part of their application, much of late July and August for those on the selection panel was taken up with viewing short films by the next generation of Moroccan filmmakers. As such, the exercise of shortlisting candidates and eventually finding our two candidates for the LFS bursaries also provided an ideal opportunity to take the pulse of short filmmaking in Morocco today.

The panel was impressed by the quality and diversity of submissions received, with a pleasing range of shorts across documentary, narrative and even some non-narrative experimental work. We were struck by the new and original directions that these young filmmakers were taking within their short films, including: experimentation with non-linear narrative, film form and style, realism and surrealism, as well as adaptations that re-worked classical European literature into a contemporary Moroccan setting. However, what was also apparent in the submissions that we received was how many filmmakers of these young filmmakers were developing in new ways the preoccupations that have characterised contemporary Moroccan cinema since the late 1990s: social realist and (often violent) neo-noir narratives that focus on the challenges and inequalities facing Moroccan urban youth; an exploration of the collective and individual psychological traumas resulting from the Years of Lead; an impulse to document the traditions of rural cultures and communities that may seem at odds with a modern and increasingly globalized society; meditations on the forces that drive many young Moroccans to emigrate from their homeland and the conflict that this can generate for both the individuals and their families; and finally films (both documentary and fiction) that foreground the experience of a range of female protagonists and experiences in their narratives. We were also very pleased by the high technical quality exhibited in the corpus presented, in particular in terms of the visuals, soundtracks and artful editing skills that showed a solid degree of professionalism.

In the end, after prolonged deliberation, the panel decided to award the two LFS bursaries to Saida Janjagua and Mahassine El Hachadi. Saida and Mahassine impressed us with the quality, vision, originality and (it must be said) cinematic beauty of their filmmaking. We are delighted to be welcoming them to London in January 2017 to spend a term in residence at the LFS and hone their skills while learning and collaborating with staff and students. The bursaries will allow them to establish their own connections with British filmmakers whilst acting as artistic ambassadors for the Transnational Moroccan Cinemas project and Moroccan cinema more generally. We hope that their time at the London Film School will benefit their careers as emerging Moroccan filmmakers whose work has the potential to reach international audiences, AND will produce films and collaborative creative work that can be included in the programme of new Moroccan cinema that TMC will be curating as part of the 2018 African in Motion Film Festival.

Given the Marrakech International Film Festival’s recent announcement that it will be winding down the Cinécoles initiative (a short film competition held as part of the festival and intended to promote emerging filmmakers from film schools in the country) one could fear that short filmmaking was entering a more precarious state in Morocco, now that its new generation of aspiring filmmakers are denied this opportunity. However, the quality, range and imagination of short films and filmmakers that we have been privileged to view over the past two months, leaves the TMC project team feeling optimistic about the next generations of cinematic talent emerging from the Kingdom.

Will Higbee and Flo Martin