Kevin Dwyer: Moroccan documentary filmmaking – history, context, and some parallels with anthropology.



This paper attempts to situate Moroccan documentary filmmaking in the broad context of the history of documentary in world cinema and then to look more specifically at the context within which Moroccan documentary filmmaking takes place and some of its salient aspects. The paper is written from the perspective of an anthropologist who, after extensive fieldwork in Morocco that dealt with village life in the Souss plains and then with the country’s human rights discourse, has worked on the subject of Moroccan cinema over the past two decades but only recently came to focus on Moroccan documentary filmmaking. In this light, the paper explores a number of issues that are common to documentary and anthropology in that practitioners in both fields aim to produce cultural products that are rooted in reality, that involve complicated relationships with human subjects, and that are persuasive to audiences.

The paper’s first section serves as an introductory discussion of documentary, highlighting a number of issues in documentary as a genre, looking at documentary’s history and various forms and styles, and some different ways of categorizing documentaries, such as by subject matter, by the filmmaker’s style(eg. poetic, expository, observational, etc.), or by the particular stance the filmmaker adopts(reporter, advocate, explorer, and so on). All these considerations challenge the received notion that documentary need be, or even can be, “objective” in our conventional sense of the word This section also deals with the issue of why, for such a long period in world film history, documentary was seen as a genre inferior to fiction and points to documentary’s growing importance, over the past several decades, in the global film world both in terms of numbers of films produced as well as in awards and prizes received.

In the second section the paper turns its attention to Moroccan documentary filmmaking, tracing its history from the colonial period, into independence, and up to the present. Some comparative perspective is provided by glances at documentary in other countries of the Maghreb. We see that, as in the wider global film sector, the documentary is gaining in symbolic significance and critical appreciation in the Maghreb and in Morocco in particular, where several annual festivals are now devoted exclusively to documentary. This higher value given to documentary, starting in the first decade of the 21st century, was intensified as a consequence of the social and political unrest throughout the region sparked by the protests and upheaval that broke out in Tunisia at the end of 2010. The paper then looks at a number of avenues for the production of Moroccan documentaries, including those produced within official structures(the Moroccan Film Center(CCM) and Moroccan television), documentaries co-produced with financing from abroad, and documentaries produced outside official structures, such as web films and what has been called “guerrilla filmmaking.” These various avenues raise, each in its own way, the question of censorship and freedom of expression. In this section we also discuss some general aspects of contemporary Moroccan film culture and the availability of training for documentary filmmakers in Morocco.

The third section distills several issues common to the projects of documentary filmmaking and anthropological research and writing. Among these issues are the relationships between producers of cultural products in these fields and the human subjects encountered in the course of the project, how “trusting” relationships between these parties are constructed, and the kinds of risks that both producers and the human subjects face. One aspect explored at some length concerns the advantages and disadvantages of identifying the film’s human subjects versus preserving their anonymity, as well as the techniques filmmakers employ to disguise subjects’ identities. This situation is compared with problems that arose when the author’s anthropological study of life in a Moroccan village was translated into Arabic. The paper also explores how filmmakers and anthropologists, none of whom fully control the conditions under which they operate, adapt to unexpected circumstances, and what strategies and techniques these creative producers adopt in order to persuade audiences of the authenticity of the final product. Among the issues addressed here are the choices creators have in constructing a film’s “story” and the extent to which they show the audience the process that leads to the final product — and the question is raised as to the degree to which these various strategies aid in providing a convincing vision to audiences.

The paper then goes on to examine how these issues are expressed in two groups of documentary films produced in Morocco and/or other Maghreb/Arab countries – the first group consists of several films treating the role of women in the political process, the second group has films that challenge basic societal and cultural beliefs and practices, especially those relating to the role of religion in society and to gender and relations between the sexes.

In light of the clear expansion of documentary filmmaking in Morocco, the paper concludes by raising a number of questions that are crucial for the future of documentary in Morocco and, more broadly, for the prospects of Moroccan filmmaking in all its genres and styles: will the CCM will continue to play a dominant role, given the new technologies available to filmmakers and the critiques of the CCM being offered by professional organizations as well as by civil society? how will documentary be influenced by developments in television and other home-viewing systems and to what extent will we begin to see in Morocco, as we are seeing in some other countries, a splintering and growing division within national populations fostered by individual rather than family or group viewing practices? what direction will Moroccan politics and society move with regard to cultural practices and behavior that promote free expression, social cohesion, artistic creativity, and progressive attitudes?