Tag Archives: Marrakech

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 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