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.
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.
No wonder Faouzi Bensaïdi received most of the awards at the 19th edition of the National Film Festival in Tangier from the festival jury: Grand prix du jury; Award for the script (written by Faouzi Bensaïdi); Best female actor for Nadia Kounda; Best male actor for Mouhcine Malzi; Best original music for Mike and Fabien Kourtzer.
Outside the jury, the film also received Prix de la critique awarded by the association of Moroccan critics, and Prix des ciné-clubs from the national association of ciné-clubs.
As the plethora of awards and triumphant accolades from the National Festvial attest, Volubilis is a film that succeeds and satisfies on multiple fronts : with the public in the theater, the festival people, and the cinéphiles (critics and cine-club goers).
At the National Festival in Tangier, Faouzi Bensaïdi presented Volubilis by describing it as a love story shot in dialogue with the tradition of the Egyptian melodrama – hence his careful attention to music and to structure. As the narrative unfolds, the two protagonists, Malika (Nadia Kounda) and Abdelkader (Mouhcine Malzi) who are in love and poor, will be separated and reunited. Towards the end of the film, there is even a party (in the Egyptian tradition), but it is no wedding with dancing and singing: Bensaïdi twists things with amused irony and the fiesta, instead of a prelude to happiness ever after, leads Malika to the discovery of what her husband has endured. When the haute bourgeoisie feasts, it is on the back of the humble people that it exploits.
The plot is straightforward: Malika and Abdelkader are married. He is a guard in a mall in Meknes, and she finds work as a maid in a bourgeois house owned by a woman whose husband is leaving her. One day, Abdelkader applies the rules and catches a woman brazenly walking past a long line of people waiting for their turn at an office, and orders her to queue up like everyone else. Outraged, the privileged woman vows to take revenge. She does so in the most hurtful way possible, through her husband (played by Bensaïdi himself). The payback for a lower-class man daring to counter a privileged member of the haute bourgeoisie is devastating: individual hogra (humiliation) is explored in all of its possible facets with relentless cruelty.
The filmic narrative also marks a return to the director’s native city: Meknes. The city has grown at different speeds depending on where one lives, since Bensaïdi left: the camera walks us in leafy neighborhoods with opulent villas, in dusty ones with huddled houses in various states of decrepitude, in newly built ones with cold, modern, project housing, and downtown with a modern shopping mall – the access to which the administration wants to restrict to wealthy customers. Only once do we escape from Meknes, when Abdelkader and Malika, cramped in the apartment of Abdelkader’s family, take a bus to Volubilis and walk among its ruins. Malika and Abdelkader can only share intimate moments away from the stifling home. These moments are imaged in delicate, nuanced ways: close-ups on interlaced fingers, of Abdelkader massaging cream into the hands of his beloved, as well as metonymic, extreme close-ups on the mouths of both protagonists sharing a juice. The latter has the erotic power of Gilda’s glove scene.
There is drama, melodrama, humor, beautiful shots and music. Here, the film talks to a wide audience looking for a good story well told.
The film also riffs on other cinemas, with shots reminiscent of Rear Window, of Mulholland Drive, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, as well as quotations from Faouzi’s own filmography: just as the killer had covered the on-coming sound of a revolver shot in WWW by opening every single faucet in the lavatory, one after the other, mechanically (like Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line of Modern Times), the boss who orders torture covers the sound in a similar fashion by opening all windows looking onto the hustle and bustle of the street below. Two friends try acting like fundamentalists by putting kohl around their eyes (just as they had in Death for Sale). A couple starts a possible love story over the phone, just like in WWW. Not to mention the actors: Bensaïdi himself appears in the film, along with his spouse, Nezha Rahil, who bring their past roles into the decoding of the characters they play on screen. Here, the film talks to film buffs and to those familiar with Bensaïdi’s cinematography. In many ways, the film, solidly anchored locally (Meknes), speaks to an array of people simultaneously, just as Shakespeare did in his plays. The film finds all sorts of ruses to talk to everyone at the same time with impeccable maestria.
Established in 1982, the Festival National du Film (FNF) is devoted to screening the best of contemporary Moroccan feature films and short films from the previous twelve months. For the first seven editions, the festival took place sporadically, over 23 years in six different Moroccan cities. Then, in 2005, the 8th edition was held in Tangier, which has remained the home of the festival ever since – with a shift to the festival being held annually there since 2010. And so, this year, between 9-17 March, the attention of the Moroccan film industry (as well as the TMC research team) was focused on the 19th edition of the Festival National du Film in an unexpectedly rainy Tangier.
2018 was an important year for the festival in a number of ways. Firstly, it heralded the return of a number of key Moroccan filmmakers (including Faouzi Bensaïdi, Nour-Eddine Lakhmari and the newly appointed director of the Cinémathèque Marocaine, Narjiss Nejjar) whose work had been absent from the festival for too long, due to the rhythms of film production. Second, the 19th FNF was also an opportunity to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ‘birth’ of Moroccan cinema, with a retrospective of classic Moroccan films running at the Cinéma Rif, alongside the fifteen features and fifteen short films that were being screened in competition a little way across town in the Roxy cinema. Parallel to the Moroccan cinema retrospective at the Rif were screenings of the hors compétition films, which included En Quête de la 7ième porte, a fabulous documentary on Bouanani by Ali Essafi. In conversations over mint tea or coffee between the screenings, there seemed to be as much talk about what had not been included in the retrospective of Moroccan cinema as there was around the selection of films in competition and those contemporary films screening hors compétition. Whilst it is, undoubtedly, a thankless task for any programmer to condense 60 years of Moroccan film history into a selection of fourteen films, the lack of a place in the selection for key films by Farida Benlyazid, Jilali Ferhati and Ahmed el Maanouni, was a surprise to me, at least.
Lastly, and most importantly, this was a significant year for the diversity of contemporary films on offer, given talk in recent years of a possible ‘crisis’ in Moroccan cinema. This diversity was displayed not only in the aforementioned ‘return’ to the festival of contemporary Moroccan auteurs but also in experimental film such as Hicham Lasri’s Jahilya, alongside popular genre cinema such as Korsa (Toukouna, 2018) as well as original approaches to the established trend of Moroccan films exploring the politics and trauma of the Years of Lead in Kilikis…la cité des hiboux (Lamharzi, 2017), Cri de l’âme (Eljaouhary, 2018). Finally, it was to be found in the outstanding documentary House in the Fields (Hadid, 2017), whose strength merely served to highlight the fact that documentary was, regrettably, under-represented at this year’s festival in both the feature and short film categories – although more visible in the hors compétition section.
In addition to the films being screened in the three strands of this year’s festival there was a concerted effort by the CCM to bring together a series of industry panels on co-production and distribution with invited guests from across the world – as well as a pitch competition for young filmmakers, a screenwriting and development workshop run by both MediTalents (a trans-Mediterranean initiative to promote and develop the projects of emerging filmmakers from across the Mediterranean region) and a specialist workshop on documentary funding by FIDADOC. All of these sessions took place in the Hotel Atlas Rif on the seafront – a key hub of industry activity during the festival – offering a much-needed forum and visibility for Moroccan filmmakers to engage with, learn from and network with industry experts from within and beyond Morocco.
These kinds of activities have taken place in previous editions of the National Festival: see for example Jamal Bahmad’s blog entry from last year’s FNF on the panel discussion on distribution and exhibition. However, there did seem to be a more consciously transnational outlook to this year’s industry focused events – an indication, perhaps, that more needs to be done to promote Moroccan cinema internationally in ways that have not always been presented as a priority in this and other Moroccan festivals (most notably and somewhat paradoxically, at the Marrakesh International Film Festival, where the focus has been on the glitz and glamour of the red carpet).
In the coming weeks, the TMC team will offer a series of more in-depth blog posts focusing on specific aspects of the festival mentioned above, as well as, of course (!) reactions and analyses of the films themselves that made up the 19th Festival National du Film. To be continued…
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