RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
Between Europe and Africa
13th National Film Festival In Tangier
We may now need to treat films as events that have happened to us, experiences that are inalienably ours, and thus as material facts. The cinema has helped carry the burden of history, or has given the illusion of carrying it, but it has also bequeathed a kind of double and parallel life, shadowing another one which is perhaps becoming ever more shadowy, as our culture’s real past becomes its movies.
- Thomas Elsaesser -
The 13th edition of the Festival National du Film (FNF) in Tangier (January 12 -21, 2012) recently ended and it was an unparalleled success, even meteorologically. Unlike last year, when it rained nearly every day, the weather was clement for the nearly one thousands guests. Hosted expertly once again by the Centre Cinématographique Marocain, the festival featured a record twenty-three feature-length films (eight of which were by first-time directors) and as many shorts over a nine-day period. The 13th edition of the FNF is cause for rejoicing on several levels: first, because production continues to increase here (nineteen films were featured in last year’s festival) and secondly, from my vantage point, quality was also up: I saw six or seven feature films that seemed exceptional to me. Those are indeed promising statistics.
This year, I was accompanied by several of my students from the Faculté Polydisciplinaire de Ouarzazate. Our stay in Tangier began on the opening day with a tour of the CINÉMATHÈQUE DE TANGER. Housed in the former Rif Cinema, it joins the CCM’s own Cinémathèque Marocaine, a FIAF member, in endeavoring to preserve and diffuse films, particularly Moroccan films. Screenings for this year’s festival were once again held in the Roxy cinema. It’s worth noting that at its high point in the 1970s Tangier was the home of no less than seventeen film theatres. My colleague, the film critic Ahmed Boughaba is currently preparing an in-depth study of Tangier and its rich cinema history. In fact, the first public screening in Morocco took place in Tangier in 1905. Renowned for having inspired many writers and painters, Tangier also regularly inspires filmmakers and this year’s Grand Prix, Leïla Kilani’s stunning Sur la planche, was shot there.1
The 2012 festival was kicked off by a screening of George Méliès’ newly restored Trip to the Moon in color. This new version, beautifully executed, was a veritable gem to behold and a homage to those anonymous female workers who painstakingly hand-colored—each one responsible for just one color—early films.
The 2012 festival was kicked off by a screening of George Méliès’ newly restored Trip to the Moon in color. This new version, beautifully executed, was a veritable gem to behold and a homage to those anonymous female workers who painstakingly hand-colored—each one responsible for just one color—early films.
In fact, this screening undeniably changed my perception of the film; the addition of color marvelously highlights Méliès’ fin de siècle humor. Before the screening, Sévérine Wemaere and Gilles Duval, responsible for the masterful and time-consuming color restoration of its 14,000 images, delivered an in-depth press conference. One friend arriving a couple of days after the festival’s start was querulous regarding the logic of thus inaugurating this year’s festival: but for this spectator, the CCM’s strategy was crystal clear. By premiering with this early film masterpiece, the CCM adroitly signaled the position of its own national cinema in film history. And why not? This year I had the great pleasure of witnessing a veritable efflorescence of Moroccan films. As Edgar Morin pronounced on the eve of the screening of the in-competition films, Moroccan cinema is “one of the most important cinemas in the world.”
Edgar Morin with CCM Director Nour-Eddine Sail
In addition to the presentation on the Méliès’ restoration, the first Friday of the festival also included a conference given by the aforementioned ninety-year-old French interdisciplinary thinker who delivered a wide-ranging talk followed by a lengthy Q and A. Speaking freely from notes, Morin memorably described adolescence as “l’âge plastique de l’homme” (the malleable age of man) and as himself deeply influenced in his youth by books as well as films. With regard to the latter, he cited, in particular, the importance of G.W. Pabst’s Kamaradeschaft (1931) where, on the eve of Hitler’s takeover, German miners rescue their French colleagues after a disaster.
In the cinema, Morin is best known for his 1956 Le Cinéma ou l'homme imaginaire (Éditions de minuit) followed up the next year by Les Stars(Seuil), and of course for his co-authorship, with Jean Rouch, of the seminal 1961 documentary Chronique d’un été. Less well known is the fact that Morin also wrote an important study of Germany in the aftermath of World War 2—L’An zéro de l’Allemagne (1946)—that inspired the title of the closing film of Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy (Allemagne, année zero). Some sixty-five years later, Morin remains active as well as relevant. He is one of three esteemed French nonagenarians, all of whom were early members of the French Resistance who have succeeded not only in terms of longevity but also for their ongoing intellectual gravitas and pertinence (the other two of course being Stéphane Hessel, author of the globally bestselling pamphlet Les Indignés and Daniel Cordier, author of the definitive biography of the Resistance fighter Jean Moulin).
Morocco is an extraordinarily scenic country and the beauty of its landscapes was frequently featured in the films I saw, particularly the Rif mountains in the north. IN MY REPORT OF LAST YEAR’S FESTIVAL, I noted a preponderance of films on the topic of female prostitution. It’s noteworthy that the most popular theme among the feature-length films this year was illegal immigration, in particular to Spain, a topic that Daoud Aoulad-Syad earlier addressed in his excellent 2004 film Tarfaya. On a clear day in Tangier, Spain—less than ten miles away—is clearly visible.
Hakim Belabbès’ Rêves ardents, Mohamed Asli’s Mains rudes, and Mohamed Nadif’s Andalousie, mon amour! all addressed this theme. And while not the main topic, male immigration to Spain also plays a crucial role in the life of the heroine of Narjiss Nejjar’s L’Amante du Rif (her father and one of her brothers both immigrate there for work). The festival’s sole documentary (more a reportage than a documentary), Kathy Wazana’sPour une nouvelle Séville, suggests Spain and more precisely Andalusia as a kind of paradise lost for a peaceful co-habitation between Arabs and Jews, another recurrent theme in this year’s festival. In his closing remarks, Nour-Eddine Saïl described “Morocco as a country whose very identity is founded on an openness to other cultures.”
This year’s festival included the latest film by Hamid Benani, best known for having directed Wechma (Traces, 1970), widely recognized as the first Moroccan film d’auteur. Like Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi and Ahmed Bouanani, who both collaborated on Traces, Benani belongs to that first generation of Moroccan filmmakers educated abroad (all three graduated in the 1960s from the French national film school l’IDHEC). Curiously, his current release, l’enfant Cheikh, is only his third in a career spanning forty years.
Benani’s film is an epic covering a fascinating period in Moroccan colonial history when Amazigh tribes successfully, albeit temporarily, routed invading French troops. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, during the French and Spanish occupation of North Africa, “it was the Berbers or Amazigh people of these mountainous regions who offered the fiercest resistance.”2 Last year, Jamal Belmajdoub’s Meghiss tackled a similar topic of Berber insurrection against the Spanish in the Rif mountains. Shot in Arabic, Benani told me he plans to release his film also in the three Amazigh languages.
It’s the first time that this history has been portrayed on screen. Unfortunately, L’enfant Cheikh seems largely to have disappointed its Moroccan audience in Tangier who apparently disliked the liberties taken with the historical record. As a non-specialist, however, I liked the way the film navigated between its two histories, one in a major key, the other in minor. It reminded me of the award-winning BBC/HBO series Rome that narrates the story of the rise to power of two legendary Roman emperors (Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar) via the fictionalized accounts of two Roman soldiers: I know it’s not all factual, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it.
Eschewing a reënactment of battle scenes that would have been too costly, Benani incorporated archival footage into his fictionalized account of a tribe whose august leader (Mohamed Majd) is killed at the film’s outset. His young widow, Zahra (Sana Mouziane) wishes to marry Saïd, her deceased husband’s elder son by an earlier marriage who will then become Cheikh. But Saïd, a moral weakling crippled by a dual attraction to his stepmother and his adoptive sister, is unable to assume this role. Before the film closes on Iddir—Zahra’s infant son with the Cheikh, suggesting that it is he who ultimately will continue the tribe’s patriarchal lineage—Zahra, a strong-willed woman, cuts off her hair and presumably heads off to battle. The word Amazigh itself is believed to mean “free man.” If L’enfant Cheikh is a paean to those courageous Amazigh warlords, it is no less so to their women.
Interestingly, the idea of free men returns in Ismaël Ferroukhi’s second feature Les Hommes libres (Free Men) that showed at the Toronto Film Festival last September and then opened in New York theatres. It tells the true, albeit little-known, story of how the imam of the Grand Mosque of Paris during the Second World War aided some Sephardic Jews to escape deportation by providing them with Muslim identities. (It was relatively easy for Sephardic Jews to pass themselves off as Muslims: they spoke Arabic, ate no pork, and were circumcised.) In his press conference, Ferroukhi revealed that he was inspired to make the film after reading a paragraph in Le Nouvel observateur. For him, the article was a veritable revelation; he hadn’t known that in the 1930s - 40s a substantial Maghrebin population, most of whom were illiterate factory workers,3 already existed in the French capital. Ferroukhi calls Les Hommes libres “un travail de mémoire” and the distinguished French historian, Benjamin Stora, a specialist of the Maghreb, acted as an advisor on the film.
Opening in 1942, the narrative focuses on the fictionalized character of Younes, a young Algerian immigrant living well off the black market who sends money back home. The French police suspect the imam of aiding Jews and attempt to lure Younes in as an informer. Initially, I expected the film to be an Arab version of Louis Malle’s pioneering Lacombe, Lucien (1974) that was the first French film to openly treat the topic of collaboration amongst the French population. But unlike Lucien, Younes (played by Tahar Rahim who won a César for his role in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 A Prophet), has a conscience and slowly he undergoes a political awakening.
The film’s real pivot, however, is the historical figure of the imam, Si Kadour Benghabrit who is majestically played by Michael Lonsdale (who himself has ties to Morocco, having lived there during WW2.).
Born in Algeria in 1868 (and thus a slightly younger contemporary of the Maréchal Pétain, born in 1856), Benghabrit founded the Great Mosque of Paris in 1926.
The film’s other historical figure is the Jew Salim—né Simon—Hilali, the most popular Arab-language singer in Paris at the time. Thanks to Benghabrit, he survived the war by posing as a Muslim. The actor playing him incarnates this double identity: he’s the Palestinian actor from Israel Mahmoud Shalaby. Like Kathy Wazana’s Pour une nouvelle Séville, Ferroukhi’s film commemorates a successful collaboration between Arabs and Jews. Les Hommes libres portentously closes on May 8, 1945, on the day that marked the end of one war with the surrender of the Nazis, and the beginning of another with the violent French massacre of Algerians in Sétif: The fight to be free men will thus continue in the burgeoning Nationalist movement to free Algeria.
During the press conference, one audience member questioned the Moroccanness of the film, since Les Hommes libres was the only film in the feature-length competition not to have benefited from CCM funding. But inclusion in the FNF is based solely on a filmmaker’s nationality: Ferroukhi, born in the Northern coastal city of Kenitra in 1962, and whose family moved to France during his childhood, has dual citizenship. (This explains why, for instance, the art-house hit by the Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe You Are all Captions (2011), which was shot in Tangier with a Moroccan cast and benefited from extensive CCM assistance, has not been shown at the FNF.4 ) And to the person who questioned the film’s Moroccanness, it’s worth pointing out that Si Kadour Benghabrit was also a Moroccan citizen with close ties to the Sultan (the future Mohammed V) who refused to deliver Moroccan Jews to the Germans.
Told in a straightforward and classical manner, the film more than fulfills its mission. Filmmaker Hakim Belabbès in his press conference quoted Godard to explain his motives in making a film about destitute Moroccans hoping to emigrate: “to render visible the invisible.” And that is just what Ferroukhi has done: he has succeeded in bringing to light this episode in French history during the Occupation. The Maghrebin workers in France who numbered about 100,000 at the time were mostly Algerians from Kabylie. They weren’t considered French and they weren’t even considered foreigners: they were invisible.5 Ferroukhi’s film has the tonic effect of helping to enlarge the historical record to include some forgotten players.
The hero of Roschdy Zem’s Omar m’a tuer, which was in the running up until a few days ago as a foreign film entry in this year’s Oscars, is another invisible Maghrebin. It could be argued that Omar m’a tuer bears the stamp more of its producer, Rachid Bouchareb—well-known for hisfilms à thèse Hors-la-loi (2010) and Indigènes (2006)—than of its director whose filmmaking début was the well-received comedy Mauvaise foi(2006). The son of Moroccan immigrants, Zem (b. in 1965) is a popular actor in France. His direction is sincere, if uninspired, and the film stars Sami Bouajila as the unfortunate accused: it’s the true story of an illiterate Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad, who is accused of having murdered his wealthy client, a widow, in the south of France. The principal evidence against him is the graffiti, written in the deceased’s own blood, of the ungrammatical: “Omar m’a tuer” (instead of “Omar m’a tué”). No matter that it’s highly unlikely that someone educated—even one on the point of expiration—would have written the phrase thus. That the French legal system, particularly in the south—a hotbed of Le Pen supporters—is stacked against an illiterate immigrant I have no doubt. Nonetheless, the film did leave some questions: notably, how is it possible that Omar’s defense, led by the usually brilliant (as well as controversial) Jacques Vergès (the subject of Barbet Schroeder’s 2007 documentaryAvocat de la terreur), did not succeed in exculpating him? It’s a film I want to like, but that despite that solecistic scrawl remains bloodless.
Kathy Wazana’s Pour une nouvelle Séville, is motivated by her own life story. Born in Casablanca (her parents were from Essaouira), she left Morocco at the age of ten with her family and grew up in Canada. Her film emphasizes the pacific cohabitation between Arabs and Jews that existed for centuries in Morocco. Her film also points out the disturbing fact that David Ben Gurion expulsed some 700,000 Palestinians from the newly created state of Israel while also inviting the same number of Jews from the Arab world. Pour une nouvelle Séville is loosely constructed around a series of interviews, one of the most poignant is with a New York professor who recounts how his father never forgave his mother for uprooting their family from a comfortable life in Casablanca to move to Israel, because she feared being the only Jewish family left in the neighborhood.
In Hakim Belabbès’ Rêves ardents a young mother anxiously awaits a call from her husband confirming his successful illegal immigration to Spain. The wait for a call (that never comes) is interminable for her and the spectator. Rêves ardents is aesthetically filmed and a distinct departure from Belabbès grittier, autobiographical, Fragments, that won the Grand prix at the 2011 FNF. Rêves ardents features not real clandestine workers but professional actors who are marvelous. Inspired in part by Elia Kazan’s America America, (1963), Belabbès maintains that “The best fiction is non-fiction.” A graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, Belabbès currently teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Mohamed Nadif and his screenwriter Omar Saghi (Andalousie, mon amour!) intelligently insist on the importance of education to convince people to make the choice of not immigrating, to stay in Morocco. Their film emphasizes as well the precarious lives of those who do manage to leave. If people emigrate because of a difficult economic situation in Morocco, they learn quickly enough that Spain is no longer an El Dorado.
This idea is echoed in the second feature film by Mohamed Asli
Mains rudes (Rough Hands). Its lead actor, Mohamed Bastaoui, in a reprisal of his role in Tarfaya, was distinguished with this year’s Best Actor Award as the blind hairdresser living with his elderly mother. Mains rudes tells the story of Zakia, a thirty-year-old grade school teacher who wishes to follow her fiancé who has immigrated to Spain. But the only work she can apply for there is hard, agricultural labor. In addition to his activities as a hairdresser, Mustapha arranges false papers for various persons with the help of the wealthy minister’s wife (Mme. Amina) whom he works for. At the Spanish Embassy, Zakia’s hopes to emigrate are shattered when the inspector—suspecting that there is something strange about her hands, which she has specially treated so they’ll appear rough—asks her to remove her shoes. Her dainty feet that have been recently pedicured give her away as an upscale, urban denizen and not a lowly manual worker from the sticks! As Zakia later ruefully notes “The Spanish want animals, not human beings.”
In addition to Bastouri, I thought the actress (Houda Rihani) wonderful: the scene where she breaks down in front of her young charges in the classroom is particularly moving. Paying homage to his actors, Asli observed: “It’s possible for actors rather than filmmakers to be the driving force in Moroccan cinema.”) During the Q and A, the film’s happy ending was criticized. Zakia marries the bachelor Mustapha who grants her two demands: he offers her a red sports car and hires the popular Amazigh musical group, Ahwach, to play at their wedding. Her two wishes reveal her twin desires for both tradition (the Amazigh musical group) and modernity (a convertible). Don’t we all aspire to a happy ending for our lives?
For the men who do decide not to emigrate, the only option often seems to be a life of a petty criminal. Such is the case of young Malik in Faouzi Bensaïdi’s much anticipated Mort à vendre [Death for Sale]. It’s a neo-film noir and Bensaïdi’s third feature-length film (his 2003 A Thousand Months and his 2006 What a Wonderful World both played in the U.S.) At its outset, Malik meets his friend Allal who is just released from prison. Although in his 20s or early 30s, Malik still lives at home with his mother and stepfather. While his sister works in a textile factory, Malik has no particular source of income, and he spends his days camped out in front of the family television. The scene where the stepfather threatens Malik and struggles with the t.v. set is memorably comic. Together with his friends Allal and Soufiane, he plans a heist that ultimately goes awry.
In his press conference, Bensaïdi noted that he wrote the screenplay in Tangier and originally the film was to have been set there before he changed its locale to nearby Tetouan. Bensaïdi has a gift for filming characters in breathtaking establishing shots and the film definitely makes me want to visit that Atlantic port city. Nevertheless, I thought there were some problems with the screenplay and that the film, at 117 minutes, would have benefited from a tighter edit.
One critic during the press conference noted that the film falls into the trap of looking for a subject or story. To which Bensaïdi replied: “It’s not the subject that’s interesting. Not even the verb is interesting. It’s the adjective. Films with a subject are uninteresting.” Someone rightly noted that the film’s subject is the city of Tetouan and the way it is lit. While another spectator noted that the film’s real subject are a bunch of losers and that from its first films (Ahmed Bouanani’s 1980 Mirage comes to my mind), Moroccan cinema has focused on losers: “That’s why there’s an Arab spring,” he added.
In the short film category, the festival notably included Halima Ouardiri’s “Mokhtar,” which I covered in my review of the 2011 MEDITERRANEAN SHORT FILM FESTIVAL in Tangier. The filmmaker, who is Maroco-Swiss (she grew up in Geneva) and lives today in Montreal, comes from a documentary background. Her award-winning short is inspired by a true story of a boy cruelly punished by his father for having adopted an injured baby owl, a bird traditionally considered an evil influence in Morocco. Not all Moroccans are superstitious, but the film does portray a certain reality, no doubt disappearing, in isolated Moroccan villages. Ouardiri filmed in a village near Taroudant, not far from Agadir, the region which today is particularly known for its production of the famous argan oil.
The shorts also included Cherqui Ameur’s excellent documentary of three elderly Amazigh poets. Entitled “Les Murmures des cimes” [literally, Murmurings from the Heights], it preserves an important oral memory. One of them cries out: “Je me suis entiché de la beauté et cela m’a battu” (I was infatuated with beauty and it overwhelmed me”). Another one adds: “La poésie rime bien avec la vie modeste” (Poetry rhymes with a modest lifestyle).
Hicham Ayouch—whose ménage à trois in Fissures sent shock waves through audiences two years ago but that won the prize for Best First Film at the 2010 FNF—was present with a short that continues to push at the boundaries in Moroccan film. Shot in a lush landscape in the Rif mountains, it tells the story of a father and son who spend the weekend camping.
The twenty-five year old son takes the opportunity of their time alone to reveal his secret. Those few words (“I’m gay”) kills the dialogue between them and spells the demise of the son who has wildly miscalculated who his father is. Abdelsslam Bounouacha (the lead male in Fissures) who plays the father is once again a powerful presence onscreen, as he comes to terms with this unexpected revelation. The scene where he flagellates himself reminded me of Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992). Unfortunately, the film is titled in English (“As They Say”) and it misses its mark, completely. During his press conference, Ayouch explained that it’s a translation and reference to Charles Aznavour’s song “Comme ils disent,” which the singer describes as the first song about homosexuality! It’s a pity Ayouch didn’t include the song in his credits. In any case, the proper English translation of the song’s title is “What Makes a Man a Man,” which has the distinct merit of being comprehensible.
It was a pleasure to see again Ouda Benyamina’s Sur la route du paradis that followed up its success at the 2011 Mediterranean Short Film Festival by also winning the award for best short at the 2012 FNF. Its screenplay and the performances of its actors are outstanding. Another short that impressed me was Maryam Touzani’s “Quand ils dorment” that tells the story of the young Sara after the death of her beloved grandfather.
One of the biggest revelations in this year’s FNF were the three feature films by women, shown together on the last day of competition. Initially, I wondered about that programming decision. But after seeing them and thinking about it, it seems to me that in so doing, the CCM wished to highlight this real breakthrough à la marocaine—not just quantitative but also qualitative—in national production. This year, the feature-length competition included four films by women (as opposed to two last year). And the shorts category included five this year (four last year). It’s worth emphasizing that the awards for best films, in both categories, were won by women this year.
Still, I hasten to add that this is not the first time that a woman has won the Grand Prix for a feature-length film at the FNF, as I first (mistakenly) thought. While, astonishingly, it wasn’t until 2010 that an American woman won at the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture—Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker—Leïla Kilani is preceded by both Fatima Jebil Ouazzini whose La Maison de mon père won at the 1998 FNF and Yasmine Kassari whose L’Enfant endormi won in 2005.
What I already wrote about Sur la planche in my coverage of the Maghreb des Films festival last October, bears repeating: Sur la planchesinglehandedly ushers in a fresh modernity into Moroccan cinema. It is Morocco’s A bout de souffle.
Kilani, whose 2008 documentary Nos lieux interdits, on the leaden years under Hassan II, was much remarked, based her new film on an article documenting the rise of female criminality in urban areas. Sur la planche is her first fiction feature. The screenplay is excellent, the performances of the young women (all non-professionals) superb, and the cinematography (pace one disgruntled audience member who complained in the press conference that the film was poorly lit) just right.
My one (and only) quibble is that it’s not quite accurate to call the film a polar, as Kilani did (and many of the reviews have picked this up) in her press conference. It’s true that Sur la planche is close in lighting and tone to a polar (from the French policier) or film noir; nevertheless, it lacks a criminal investigation, a sine qua non of that genre. The filmmaker who calls herself first and foremost a film spectator prepared her young “interpreters” for their roles by showing them films by Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers, filmmakers whose vision is distinctly more sociological than film noirish.
Sur la planche is the story of two young women representing Morocco’s new female underclass who have moved to Tangier, where they are dismally employed in a factory. Badia dominates this feminine duo and the film opens by making us privy to her stream of consciousness, revealing her very particular worldview:
Je ne vole pas; je me rembourse. Je ne cambriole pas; je récupère. Je ne trafique pas; je commerce. Je ne me prostitue pas; je m’invite. Je ne mens pas; je suis déja ce que je serai. Je suis juste en avance sur la vérité—la mienne.
(I don’t steal; I’m repaying myself. I’m not robbing; I’m recuperating. I’m not trafficking in stolen goods; I’m trading. I’m not prostituting myself; I’m inviting myself. I don’t lie; I am already what I will be. I’m just ahead of the truth—my own.) [My translation]
The young women’s work that consists of cleaning hundreds of shrimp per day is, like all factory work, alienating. Badia may not have read Marx but she’s a real fighter, aware of her rights: “Ils ont mon temps. Ils n’auront pas ma peau” (They have my time; they won’t have my hide.) In the Q and A, several persons complained that Badia’s Darija or Moroccan Arabic was incomprehensible, thus forcing them to read the film’s French subtitles.
But Kilani, a highly articulate public speaker, defended the character’s rough diction (“diction rocailleuse”) that conveys “a moving spiritual quality.” Much of the film is devoted to Badia bathing, as she tries to free herself of an odor that gets under your skin: “L’odeur, ça passe sous la peau.” In the film’s finale, she says “ça schlingue!” (It stinks to high heaven) before running off to take her umpteenth (and final) shower.
Imane is her seemingly docile factotum, but the shot at the beginning of the film where we see them together, in close up, looking in different directions, intimates discord between them. Curiously, Badia—who is incredibly lucid vis à vis their friendship with two other young women employed in the more upscale textile zone and who want to con Badia and Imane—is completely unsuspecting when it comes to Imane.
Soufia Issami (Badia) and Nouzha Akel
The film’s moral? Never, ever underestimate someone you consider weaker than you.
The penultimate film in this year’s lineup was Narjiss Nejjar’s L’Amante du Rif that showed last December in the Marrakech Film Festival. It’s Nejjar’s third feature film and I found it powerful. It is set in the town of Chefchaouen, a coastal Rif village between Tetouan and Tangier of incredible beauty. With its buildings whitewashed in white and blue and the beating sun, it visually reminded me of a Greek island village.
L’Amante du Rif narrates the tragic life of the sensual and rebellious twenty-year-old Aya (Nadia Kounda, superb). Instead of thinking of emigrating or attending university, Aya and her best friend Radia dream of a love that will elevate them from their mundane lives. One of Aya’s brothers acts as her procurer, introducing her to his boss, “the Baron,” who trafficks in hashish. After Aya loses her virginity, her mother dutifully takes her to a doctor to have her hymen surgically re-stitched. The turning point comes when Radia, jealous over Aya’s relationship with the Baron, tries to commit suicide by defenestration. She survives, only to accuse the lovers of having pushed her. While the Baron escapes, Aya does time in prison where she pines for him and identifies with Carmen in the Carlos Saura film (1983) of the same name. Not surprisingly, her identification with the Spanish firebrand spells her doom. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of her mother who wants Aya to marry a distant cousin, the young woman gets early parole. After her release, she orchestrates a meeting with the Baron, now back in the area, and for whom she still longs (“Je l’ai dans la peau”). Dressed all in black, she makes out with him in a truck. The shot of him zipping up his pants, post-coïtum, underscores the banality of their act. Letdown, she slips behind the wheel and drives herself off the cliff. Initially, the film’s finale evoked for me the ending of Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991).
But if the last-stand gesture of Thelma and Louise in the American film seems, on one level, heroically lucid because the two women are cornered by the police, that of Aya, questionably qualified by the filmmaker as her “only act of freedom,” seems motivated by a lebensangstbeyond her years. Nor is Aya’s suicide similar to that of Catherine in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) who kills herself (and her lover) by similarly driving off a cliff: the Truffaut/Roché character has always struck me as somewhat crazy in her unpredictability. The filmmaker’s remarks during her press conference suggest yet another antecedent for her character. Aya’s problems, Nejjar told us, stem from romantic notions of love that her mother has bequeathed her: Aya is not so much in love with the Baron as she is in love with the idea of being in love, and that that’s a problem that many young women suffer from, according to the filmmaker. Aya’s true cinematographic sister is thus the heroine in the Fassbinder classic The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979): despite all her accomplishments, Maria “forgets” to turn off the gas at the end, because her romantic notions of love and marriage happily ever after with her husband literally go up in smoke once she realizes she’s never been anything more than a pawn in the lives of two men.
In fact, the film’s script doesn’t do justice to Nejjar’s ideas, because the mother, although downtrodden, seems largely sympathetic. When Aya tells her she cannot marry her cousin because she barely knows him and certainly doesn’t love him, her mother confides that she never loved her father. A true romantic, Aya rebels against her mother’s fatalism. One final criticism of this film that I otherwise very much liked: the framing device of the friend or relative (Moune) who remains off-screen but films Aya seems unnecessary and hackneyed.
The final film of this year’s feature-length competition was Kadija Saïdi Leclere’s Le Sac de farine, which returns to the theme of immigration to Europe. It’s the story, autobiographical, of the young Sarah who in 1975 lives in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns in Belgium. One fine day, her father shows up to take her to Paris for the weekend. Great is the child’s shock the next morning when she wakes up in a forlorn Moroccan village in the Rif mountains to the sound of the muezzin calling for prayer.
Her ordeal has only just begun. With no explanation, her father abandons her again to return to Belgium and soon thereafter stops sending money; Sarah finds herself in an environment where there’s no school and her only recourse is learning how to knit. She’s raised by her aunt (played by the well-known Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass) and uncle, the latter who is clearly hostile to her presence since she represents one more mouth to feed. At one point, Sarah finally meets her biological mother who turns out to be the village folle. The film’s title refers to the scene when Sarah succeeds in selling one of her sweaters, thus enabling her to triumphantly bring home a sack of flour to feed her adoptive family. Sarah as a young woman is well played by the talented French actress of Algerian and Tunisian descent, Hafsia Herzi, whose breakthrough film was Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet (2007).
Set against a breathtaking Moroccan landscape, Le Sac de farine is a female bildungsroman and it’s wonderful. The narrative’s climax occurs in 1984, against the real-life backdrop of the strikes in northern Morocco calling for food and education for all. The film ends when a mariage blancpresents itself to Sarah as a viable return ticket to Belgium and she takes it.
The film’s press conference was incredibly heated and I’ll admit that the debate was baffling to me. One Moroccan living in France queried: “What will our European friends think of this film?” And, unfortunately, he was not alone. (Someone else told the director she needed ”to de-colonize her view of Moroccan life”). As spectators, we are all limited to our own subjectivity and I conclude that the film I saw is apparently not the same one as others in the audience. As a foreigner, I saw nothing troubling in this film. On the other hand, I did find the depiction of Moroccan patriarchs in several other films disturbing: the father in “Mokhtar” who sequesters his son until the child relents and kills the baby owl; the father in Fadil Chouika’s “La main gauche” who mercilessly stabs his son’s left hand with a pen because the child is a lefty; and in “As They Say” the father who murders his son because he’s homosexual. For me, those are unsettling images.
But what was it that was so disturbing in Le Sac de farine? Is it the image of the Moroccan father who abandons his child? Uda Benyamina’s Sur la route du paradis is far harsher with regard to a delinquent father. Surely these spectators don’t think that Morocco has a monopoly on children with absent fathers? After all, certain countries have literally built film movements on the search for a father: the French Nouvelle Vague and the German Neue Deutsche Kino immediately come to mind. Or is it the fact that the heroine upstages her stepfather’s masculinity when she literally brings home the bread? Or is it because the film references a historical political movement in the 1980s at a moment when Morocco is currently undergoing political turmoil in the wake of the Arab spring? Or, finally, is it because Sarah, throughout the film, voices her desire to return to Belgium? For her, Belgium represents not some faraway land, but in fact her homeland.
Given the film’s reception, Saïdi Leclere presented herself with considerable trepidation (“Je me présente avec peur” she told us) in her press conference, but at least fellow filmmaker Hakim Belabbès had the elegance to acknowledge feeling “before an extraordinary sensibility.” And he’s absolutely right. Le Sac de farine struck me as an important as well as courageous contribution to current Moroccan film production that more than fulfilled, in its 2012 FNF, Edgar Morin’s opening pronouncement.
In his closing press conference, CCM’s director, Nour-Eddine Saïl presented an inventory of Moroccan film in 2011, proudly noting the participation of Moroccan films in 118 festivals throughout the world. (And four of them are about to be featured at the 2012 Berlinale: Rough Hands, Death for Sale, The Rif Lover, and As They Say). He also indicated that if national production continues to increase, the festival’s organizers will soon have to make a selection.
Finally, Saïl noted that if Morocco has for geographical and historical reasons close ties to Europe, it should not forget that it exists on the continent of Africa. Underscoring the importance of Morocco’s relations with other African countries, he observed that the Senegalese master, Osmane Sembène (1923-2007), regularly edited his films at the CCM and that over the past six years, Morocco has co-produced twenty-five films with its African neighbors. “Between the festivals of Venice and Ouagadougu,” he added, “I prefer the latter,” whose 2011 winner was the Moroccan film Pégase by Mohamed Mouftakir. For the Senegalese journalist Oumy Ndour, “Morocco remains an important reference for other African countries.”
I’d like to end this review by mentioning Abdehadi El Fakir’s short ”Inch’Allah” that has a clever conceit. Set in a not-so-distant future, it’s the story of reverse immigration: A young Frenchman, unable to find employment at home, immigrates illegally to Morocco to find work. Given the actual state of many European economies, its scenario may not be as far-fetched as it initially sounds.
For more information on this year's FNF and including a complete list of its award winners, please consult the following link at the CCM’s newly revamped and expanded website:
1 Kilani is from Tangier that is also the subject of her first documentary, Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs (2002).
2 /TOPIC/BERBER-PEOPLE [Accessed 28 January 2012].
3 See the interview with Benjamin Stora, “Quand la Mosquée de Paris sauvait des juifs,” Le Nouvel observateur, 27 September 2011.
ACTUALITES/20110927.OBS1193/QUAND-LA-MOSQUEE-DE-PARIS-SAUVAIT-DES-JUIFS. HTML [Accessed 29 January 2011].
4 See Dennis Lim, ‘Give Young Boys in Morocco a Camera. . .,” New York Times, 14 October 2011.
5 See the interview with Benjamin Stora, “Les Hommes libres d’Ismaël Ferroukhi, projeté à Cannes le 19 mai,” Mediapart, 18 May 2011:
HTTP://BLOGS. MEDIAPART.FR/BLOG/BENJAMIN-STORA/180511/LES-HOMMES-LIBRES-D-ISMAEL- FERROUKHI-PROJETE-CANNES-LE-JEUDI-19-MAI
[Accessed 30 January 2012].
6 Asli is also the director of the wonderfully titled and critically acclaimed A Casablanca, les anges ne volent pas [Angels don’t fly in Casablanca, 2004] that remains unfortunately nearly impossible to see.
7“French Armenian singer Charles Aznavour says he wrote ‘the first song about homosexuality’ - WOW!,”
ARMENIAN-SINGER-CHARLES-AZNAVOUR.HTML [Accessed 1 February 2012].
This blog cites Stephen Holden’s article, “Aznavour Exploring both Love and L’Amour,” New York Times, 1 May 2009: ;scp=1&sq=aznavour&st=cse
[Accessed 1 February 2012].
8 See Jacques Mandelbaum’s review of Sur la planche, “A Tanger, le ‘A bout de souffle’ de quatre rebelles,” Le Monde, 1 February 2012, p. 22.
HTTP:/ /WWW.LEMONDE.FR/CINEMA/ARTICLE/2012/01/31/SUR-LA-PLANCHE-A-TANGER-LE-A- BOUT-DE-SOUFFLE-DE-QUATRE-REBELLES_1636875_3476.HTML [Accessed 2 February 2012]
/LEILA-KILANI-J-ETAIS-UNE-LITTERAIRE-JE-SACRALISAIS-L-ECRIT-MAIS-PAS-L- IMAGE_1636876_3476.HTML [Accessed 2 February 2012]
9 Oumy Ndour, “Le Maroc est une référence en Afrique en matière de cinéma,” Le Journal du Festival National du film, 12ième édition, no. 2, 14 January 2012, n.p.