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Morocco, Cinema of

By:
Bahmad Jamal
Source:
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Morocco, Cinema of

Cinema has enjoyed a long presence and large audience in Morocco since the release of Louis Lumière’s Le Chevrier marocain (“The Moroccan Goatherd”) in 1897. The movie is based on “exotic” scenes and types filmed by the Lumière brothers’ shooting agents in Morocco a year earlier. Despite the longevity of film in the country, there is no agreement among scholars about when Moroccan cinema was born. This is a consequence of the complex history of the country in the long twentieth century. Morocco came under French and Spanish colonial domination from 1912 to 1956. During this period French colonial cinema flourished in both production and exhibition terms. Many popular films were shot in Morocco and international cinema had a domestic following, particularly in the cities where the majority of film houses were located. Colonial cinema championed Orientalism and other forms of negative representation of the Moroccan people in spite of their geographical, religious, and class diversity. For example, the rural Imazighen (Berbers) were portrayed as a people living outside modern civilization even when they received a sympathetic portrayal in films such as Jean Benoit-Lévy and Marie Epstein’s Itto (1934). In the French protectorate cinema was perceived as a tool of imperial domination due to the power of images to subdue colonial subjects and prevent anticolonial revolt. In response to the rising influence of Egyptian cinema and the concomitant growth of Moroccan nationalism in the 1940s, the French authorities created the Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CCM) in 1944, which was charged with control over censorship, production, and distribution in the country. The Souissi Film Studios in Rabat also opened the same year to boost local film production.

Morocco has attracted international film directors since the colonial period. Orson Welles made Othello (1952) in the cities of Mogador (Essaouira), Mazagan (El Jadida), and Safi. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1952 under the Moroccan colonial flag. Alfred Hitchcock traveled to Marrakesh, where he shot The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). In 1962 David Lean made the all-time classic Lawrence of Arabia in the deserts of Morocco and Jordan. Other famous directors and films made Morocco a well-known destination for international cinema. Pier Paolo Pasolini made Oedipus Rex (1967) in the southeastern province of Ouarzazate; John Huston shot The Man Who Would Be King (1975) in the same Saharan region; following on their footsteps, Martin Scorsese made The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) in the country of the setting sun; Bernardo Bertolucci shot The Sheltering Sky (1990) between Tangier and the Sahara. This established tradition is bolstered by new productions every year. In the new century Morocco has been the scene in part or entirely of, among many others, Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000), Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra (Alain Chabat, 2002), Times of Change (André Téchiné, 2004), Babel (André Téchiné, 2006), and American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2015).

When Morocco gained independence in 1956, the production of self-representations was a natural priority for a nascent nation in need of its own myths and a sense of control over its destiny. CCM, by then a national institution, was charged with the training of Moroccan filmmaking talent through the provision of scholarships for students overseas and the production of short documentaries, particularly news bulletins (e.g., Actualités Marocaines) and educational programs that were screened in film theaters and roving cinemas all around the country. The center was thus among the major players in the nation-building process. The first full-length feature film by a Moroccan director was Mohamed Ousfour’s al-Ibn al-aʾaq (“The Damned Son”; 1958). This low-budget production was inspired by the global action and fantasy movies which the self-taught Ousfour watched in Casablanca, where he worked as a garage mechanic. The 1960s were not only characterized by continuity in CCM’s funding policy of short documentaries and nationalist propaganda, but also witnessed the return of many graduates of overseas film schools. They shared the ambition to establish a proper Moroccan cinema despite the lack of state funding for full-length, particularly fiction, films. In 1968 CCM made an exception by producing Indama tanduju al-thimar (“When Dates Ripen”) and al-Hayat kifah (“Life Is Struggle”) just in time for the first edition of the Mediterranean Film Festival in Tangier. A year later Hamid Bennani made Wechma (“The Trace”). This artistically accomplished production is widely considered as the first true Moroccan film. Bennani’s foundational film tells the story of an orphaned child and his tragic adulthood. The allegorical tones of Wechma’s plot and its artistic attributes made it popular among Moroccan film critics and clubs. Other independent productions followed in the 1970s, including such accomplished film classics as Souheil Ben-Barka’s Alf yad wa yad (“A Thousand and One Hands”; 1973) and Urs al-dam (“Blood Wedding”; 1977), Ahmed Bouanani’s Dakira 14 (“Memory 14”; 1971) and al-Sarab (“Mirage”; 1979), Moumem Smihi’s Chergui (“The East Wind”; 1975), Ahmed Maanouni’s Alyam, alyam (“Oh the Days”; 1978), and Jilali Ferhati’s Charkhun fi al-haʾet (“A Breach in the Wall”; 1978). They were made without state funding and bear the indelible marks of the struggles and solidarity behind their making. This has given the films an aura of authenticity in addition to the originality of their conceptualization and execution on small budgets. The films of this period are also distinctly allegorical and subtly political due to the repressive political environment under the reign of King Hassan II.

The Moroccan regime decided to launch a financial support scheme for national film production in 1980. The Fonds de Soutien (Support Funds) had the immediate effect of increasing national feature film production from sixteen full-length films in the 1970s to twenty-nine between just 1980 and 1984. The increasing volume of production led to the creation of the National Film Festival in 1982. This period saw the production of remarkable films such as Ahmed Maanouni’s cult documentary al-Hal (“Trance”; 1982), Mohamed Reggab’s Hallaq darb al-fuqaraʾ (“The Hairdresser of the Poor Neighborhood”; 1982), Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi’s Badis (1988) and Farida Benlyazid’s Bab al-sama maftuh (“A Door to the Sky”; 1989). However the state support system proved imperfect and had to be shelved in 1984 due to the increasingly low quality of films produced under this scheme. In 1986 the filmmaker Souheil Ben-Barka was appointed the new CCM director. He set out to reform and relaunch the funding system.

Moroccan cinema began to have a faithful and large domestic audience in the early 1990s. National directors produced popular films, which outperformed global mega productions at the box office. Abdelkader Lagtaâ’s Hub fi dar al-Beida (“A Love Affair in Casablanca”; 1991) and Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi’s al-Bahth ʿan zawj imraʾati (“Looking for My Wife’s Husband”; 1993) marked the beginning of a new age in Moroccan cinema. This cinema of proximity spoke to the daily concerns and lived experiences of ordinary people in a society under relentless transformation due to rapidly changing demographics, urbanization, and the consequences of the market reforms introduced in the 1980s under the aegis of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme. The neo-liberalization of the national economy and its social and cultural consequences found a critical voice on screen. The filmmakers seized this historic opportunity to discover and grow their domestic audience. This trend was strengthened by the arrival of a new generation of young and talented filmmakers, often with diasporic backgrounds. The CCM invited many of these hybrid directors to the 1995 National Film Festival in Tangier and opened up its funding channels to them. The Moroccan-French director Nabil Ayouch took Moroccan cinema to new heights with his hugely popular films Mektoub (1997) and Ali Zaoua (2000). These high-grossing films also won many accolades at international film festivals. The CCM managed to produce forty-eight full-length films in the 1990s, a significant increase from thirty-eight films in the previous decade.

This international renaissance of Moroccan cinema was bolstered by the creation of the Marrakech International Film Festival in 2001. This big annual event has attracted not only some of the greatest international films and filmmakers to its competitions, but has also given Moroccan filmmakers a platform to project national cinema to the wider world. The transnationalization of Moroccan cinema has enhanced both its global appeal and the quality of film production. Beginning in the early 2000s relatively unknown directors burst onto the scene with remarkable films. For example, Faouzi Bensaïdi (Alf Shahr/“A Thousand Months”; 2003), Narjiss Nejjar (Aln Zwanin/“Cry No More”; 2003), Yasmine Kassari (al-Raged/“The Sleeping Child”; 2004), Hassan Lagzouli (Tenja; 2004), and Ismail Ferroukhi (Le Grand voyage/“The Long Journey”; 2004) have become household names in the world cinema market. Moroccan cinema also witnessed a quantitative revolution in the 2000s with the production of 108 feature films. This figure has stabilized since 2010 when the CCM decided to limit its annual production to around twenty full-length films and a slightly higher number of shorts. At least a third of the films released every year are international co-productions, particularly with France and other European countries.

The Moroccan cinema-going public has shown unwavering support for national cinema since the 1990s. This audience appeal has encouraged the filmmakers to make more films that question the contradictions and struggles of ordinary people in an era of globalization. The Moroccan government has also played a leading role through the CCM in encouraging Moroccan cinema through the provision of more funding sources, political measures, investment in the digitization of cinemas, and the creation of film schools in Ouarzazate, Rabat, and Marrakech. However Moroccan cinema today is fighting for its survival against various challenging circumstances. The number of cinemas is in constant decline; the figures are alarming: fewer than fifty cinemas (down from around three hundred in the 1980s) are still in business, and the number of filmgoers has decreased from 45 million thirty years ago to fewer than 2 million today. All attempts by the CCM and cinema owners seem to have failed in the face of this existential threat to national cinema as a public culture and popular art form. There is also the question of the increasing failure of public funding to generate a cinema of quality. Finally the dependence on public funding, even though it is only partial, has cultivated a culture of self-censorship among Moroccan filmmakers despite their poignant critiques of the mores and contradictions of a society caught between the potent forces of tradition and modernity. The directors have yet to cross the red line of politics and the stalled democratization process under a semi-authoritarian regime.

Bibliography

  • Armes, Roy. Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. This study outlines the historical development of Maghrebi and Moroccan cinema since independence. It is a useful and accessible introduction to the themes and makers of cinema in Morocco until the early 2000s.
  • Bahmad, Jamal. “From Casablanca to Casanegra: Neoliberal Globalization and Disaffected Youth in Moroccan Urban Cinema.” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 6, no. 1 (2013): 15–35. This article outlines the complex and intertwined factors behind the renaissance of Moroccan cinema since the 1990s, followed by a film case study.
  • Carter, Sandra. What Moroccan Cinema? A Historical and Critical Study, 1956–2006. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009. This book provides a historical survey of Moroccan cinema from 1956 to the 1990s.
  • Dwyer, Kevin. Beyond Casablanca: M. A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Dwyer’s interviews with Tazi and his commentary on Moroccan cinema are useful insights into the functions of cinema in a changing society.
  • Orlando, Valerie. Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011. This volume consists of a series of case studies of popular Moroccan films made in the last two decades.
  • Slavin, David H. Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919–1939: White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. This is a well-researched study of French colonial cinema. The reader will find here an authoritative account of aspects of colonial Morocco on screen.
  • Souiba, Fouad, and Fatima Zahra El Alaoui. Un siecle de cinema au Maroc: 1907–1995. Rabat: World Design Communication, 1995. This book provides a survey of cinema in Morocco from the colonial period to the early 1990s.
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