The 16th Festival du Cinema Africain de Khouriba 2013
Morocco (FCAK)June 22 – 29, 2013
The role of Khouribga today is very important for understanding African cinema. Hopefully, it will become a reference point and that all that is said here will have an impact on the filmmaking of the continent. […] We have Fespaco and also Carthage, but Khouribga is the only place that allows for reflection. . . I’m not a garbage-bin filmmaker. My cinema is rare and precious. I’m making haute couture, each one of my films is hand-made. You’re not going to find my films in the supermarket. My films are for film lovers.
- Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda -
There is no better prospective project for a filmmaker than to participate, with his modest means, in the radical and systematic transformation of his society to build a world that isn’t traumatic.
- Ahmed Bounani -
Photo Credit: S. Shafto
The 16th annual Festival du Cinéma Africain de Khouribga recently finished and it was a revelation on many counts. Despite its small size and modest budget, the FCAK is regarded as the second most important rendezvous for African cinema on the continent after Burkina Faso’s FESPACO. This year, attendance in Khouribga shot up to about 300, with seventeen films from fifteen different African countries in competition.
For the first time in the festival’s history, an East African film, Shams Bhanji’s Zamora, won a top prize, the festival’s Special Jury award.Zamora is not just from East Africa, it is more specifically from Zanzibar/Tanzania. Because of my own research on the French Zanzibar films and because of the film’s inherent merits, I naturally took an especial interest in it. In fact, films from three of the so-called Spice Islands in the Indian Ocean (Zanzibar, Madagascar and Mauritius) stood out in this year’s Khouribga festival. All three deserve a wide showing.
Fittingly, since the country of Zanzibar has figured prominently in the psyche of Western artists like Arthur Rimbaud, Zamora is also an art film. This year’s jury was headed by the Moroccan dancer and filmmaker, Lahcen Zinoun whose own poetic sensibility is revealed in his most recent film, La Femme écrite (2012); in Shams Bhanji, Zinoun surely recognized a kindred spirit. Zamora’s win at Khouribga follows up on its dual success at the 2012 Zanzibar International Film Festival, where it was awarded best East African film and the Silver Dhow, the Special Jury prize. Earlier this year, the FESPACO jury deemed it best digitally shot film.
A Swahili love story, Zamora narrates the sentimental education of a young, romantic painter, Zamora, whose attachment to love is already signaled by his given name. Sensual and deeply attracted to beauty, he is torn between three women who represent three distinct types: the first, Zareena, a wealthy woman from the mainland of Tanzania whom he spurns because she tries to control him with her power; she represents the corrupting influence of society. The second, Zulfa, a veiled Omani (a reminder that the Sultan of Oman long ruled over Zanzibar) stands for tradition, and an unattainable, courtly love but equally destructive for him because of her family; and the last, Saada, a natural woman representing a pristine Africa; she has grown up on Zanzibar among monkeys, a reminder that for Rousseau, natural man is akin to a solitary chimpanzee.
Saada is an innocent, who sings but doesn’t speak and who turns down Zareena’s bribe because she does not know what money is. The protagonist is prey to his own desires and the filmmaker seems to be making a Rousseauian critique of society where individuals become contaminated by desire.
The lead role of Zamora is superbly played by the actor Richard Bezuidenhout who commands a magnetic screen presence. His media breakthrough came in 2007, when after competing against 50,000 Tanzanians, he earned a spot on the South African tele-reality show,Big Brother Africa, with fourteen African countries competing, and then won the contest at the end. Richard and his beautiful co-star Richa Adhia accompanied the filmmaker to Khouribga for the screening.
Photo Credit: S. Shafto
Given the difficulties that Africans and perhaps even more so East Africans encounter to make their films, it seems apt that Shams Bhanji began his career, after studying at the London Film School, as an assistant editor on Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) that chronicles the many obstacles facing Werner Herzog and his crew in the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982). Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island and the filmmaker prefers to describe his film as a Zanzibar production, rather than Tanzanian, to distinguish his art film from the production on the nearby mainland. The Tanzanian film industry, commonly known as Bongo films, he told me, is closely and disastrously following the Nollywood model in Nigeria that emphasizes shoestring budgets, low production values and rapid turnover. But Bhanji noted that while having an adequate budget is vital, it’s not the only hurdle facing African filmmakers; a concomitant problem is the deleterious and long-term effects of a mediocre television industry that “ feeds people’s imaginary with substandard crap.” Like Fitzcarraldo who strove to build an opera in the jungle, Shams Bhanji is heroically trying to turn the tide in East African film, where, he noted:
The industry is going in the wrong direction, like Nollywood, producing substandard work. It’s the fast-food of cinema that unfortunately reaches many people. It’s dangerous because it brainwashes so many people. We need to discuss this topic because it’s critical![ . . .] Of course, you need a certain amount of money to make a quality film, but it’s not just about the money!
One of Zamora’s paintings, by the Zanzibar painter Bayu
In his moving story about a painter, Bhanji is clearly aiming higher. His parti pris echoes that of fellow African filmmaker Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda (Democratic Republic of the Congo) who declared at this year’s festival: “ I’m not a garbage bin filmmaker. My cinema is rare and precious. I’m making haute couture, each one of my films is hand-made. You’re not going to find my films in the supermarket. My films are for film lovers.” Balufu lives between Africa, Paris and New York and teaches at NYU; I’m eager to see his next film.
Born in Zanzibar, Bhanji spent a large part of his youth in Kenya. His father who worked on a tea plantation in Nairobi ran an amateur film club in his spare-time, renting films in 16mm from 20th Century Fox that he showed in open-air screenings. Without his dad’s hobby, Shams never would have aspired to become a filmmaker. Historically, the English who colonized Eastern Africa did not bring with them the cinephile culture that the French imported into Western Africa. In this context, it is worth remembering that the French cine-club founded in Khouribga in 1934 would be the first not just in the Kingdom, but also on the continent. The current vitality of Moroccan film can be traced back to the Golden Age of film clubs throughout the country, which coincided with the establishment of the FCAK in 1977. Today, Morocco may be poor in cinema theatres (around 60 remain), but it remains one of the most ambitious players on the continent when it comes to filmmaking, thanks in no small measure to Nour-Eddine Saïl, the President of the FCAK Foundation and Director of the Centre Cinématographique Marocain.
Photo Credit: S. Shafto
By the force of his convictions and considerable energies, Saïl has done much for Moroccan film culture, including overseeing a Moroccan-African Cooperation that co-produced, in 2012, five African films. It’s encouraging that the Director of the Khouribga Festival, Lahoussaine Ndouffi, invited Shams Bhanji to collaborate with the Centre Cinématographique Marocain on his next project.
Although it won no award in Khouribga, the entry from Mauritius, Les enfants de Troumaron, based on Anandi Devi’s novel Eve de ses décombres, was an equally strong contender. Directed by Harrikrisna Anenden and his son Sharvan Anenden, Les Enfants deTroumaronwas recompensed for best first film at Fespaco, where fellow filmmaker Moussa Touré (whose film, La Pirogue from Senegal , I unfortunately missed at Khouribga) had this to say:
"When the images of certain films reach the spectators’ eyes, particularly those of the jury members, there is only one thing to be done: to accept them and to acknowledge them [. . . ] Your film is on that order."
Les Enfants de Troumaron chronicles the dead-end lives of four teenagers living in the shantytown of Troumaron, on the outskirts of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Described by Saadiq, the film’s narrator, as “our city, our kingdom, our hunting ground, our cemetery. Everything is there.” It’s a powerful film that offers the flip side of the usual postcard-perfect image of the island. The senior member of this filmmaking team, Harry Anenden, studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London. For twenty-five years, while living in Geneva, he made institutional films for the U.N. on health problems.
The film from Madagascar similarly depicts four youths as they travel across their country to accompany the student Jimmy whose father has just died. And in both films there is a murder. But while the teenagers of Troumaron are trapped in their ghetto, the Malgache youths inMalagassy Mankany (Legends of Madagascar) are in a road movie, complete with comic elements, where the tone is far more upbeat. In the q and a, the filmmaker, Haminiaina Ratovoarivony, told us that one reason he wanted to make a road movie was to display his country’s breathtaking beauty.
Haminiaina Ratovoarivony with the film critic Ahmed Boughaba. Photo Credit: S. Shafto
It came as no surprise to learn that the filmmaker modeled each of his characters after a real person, because each one (Bob, Jimmy, Dylan and Charu) seems well conceived on the level of the screenplay. The careful characterization of the four protagonists clearly owes a lot to the filmmaker’s own background in sociology, which he studied in Strasbourg. In addition to directing and producing his first feature, Ratovoarivony also plays one of the lead roles, when he was unable to find an actor to play Dylan, the film’s bad guy. (And he’s entirely convincing!) With humor and levity, the film treats serious topics like the ongoing racism in Malgache society, comprised of eighteen different ethnic Judging by the enthusiastic response following the screenings, Legends of Madagascar was clearly an audience favorite and it was awarded a special jury award. Today, Ratovoarivony lives in Chicago. For his next film, he plans on turning to documentary to tell the story of the brief exile of the then sultan Mohamed Ben Youssef (Morocco’s future King Mohamed V) in Madagascar in the 1950s.
Another film that much interested me this year is Hamid Zoughi’s Boulanoir (Morocco) that premiered on the opening night. An historical film, based on the highly regarded eponymous novel (but unfortunately not yet translated into French or English by Dr. Othman Achekra),Boulanoir tells the story of the birth of the labor union for Moroccan miners working near Khouribga (and the first labor union in Africa). Covering the period 1921-1947, the film begins with a reënactment of a battle scene between the French military and the local Bedouins in the Khouribga province during the First World War. Shortly after their military victory, the French sent engineers who discovered precious phosphate in the region. Following a tragic accident, the local miners—led by Ould Al Azzouzia whose own father perished in a mine in northern France—are convinced by a French Communist foreman to join the nascent workers’ union. The French employed prisoners in the mines and according to legend, the village name derives from the practice of tying a black ball ( boulet noir) to their feet, so they wouldn’t flee. Banking on the gullibility of the local population, the French invented the story of a fictitious marabout or holy man, Sidi Boulanoir, as the village patron saint. Boulanoir represents a Moroccan version of Emile Zola’s 1885 masterpiece, Germinal, wherein he recounts a coal-miners’ strike in northern France.
One of the principal actors in the real-life events was the French Communist, union leader, Michel Colonna, who arrived in Morocco in 1929, learned the Moroccan dialect and helped to instigate the major workers’ strike in 1947. As a recompense for his efforts to help his Moroccan brothers, the French authorities repeatedly threw him prison and then expulsed in 1953. It was moving for me to meet Colonna’s five children, all of whom made the trip to Khouribga to see this adaptation of history in which their father played a seminal role.
Photo Credit: S. Shafto
A second feature for Hamid Zoughi, Boulanoir has the distinct merit of recounting an important national narrative that is set in a rural region little known to filmmakers. I would like to include Boulanoir in a film class for my students on Moroccan history.
Photo Credit: S. Shafto
Another film that intrigued me this year (and the only entry by a woman) is Apolline Traoré’s fascinating Moi, Zaphira (Burkina Faso). Initially, Traoré had to overcome the prejudices of her father, who worked for the U.N., in order to pursue her dream of making films (she ultimately studied in the U.S. at Emerson College). In Moi, Zaphira, the filmmaker significantly transposes her own life story.
After the death of her husband, Zaphora, an impoverished young Burkinabé, chooses to remain in her village with her child, despite her visceral disdain for her surroundings. Normally, we associate Africa with bright, vivid colors, but Apolline Traoré has treated this principal part of the film in a sepia monochrome in order to convey a bleak reality still all-too-common on this continent: grinding poverty, lack of motivation and a village so poor that it subsists only thanks to foreign aid. The film is in Bambara, a poetic language that is apparently very difficult to translate. The film’s title, Moi, Zaphira, cues us to the heroine’s willfulness and her admirable desire to dream out-of-the-box when it comes to her child’s future. Like Zamora in the Zanzibar film who “desires every beautiful woman he meets,” Zaphira is mesmerized by beauty; she becomes entranced by the alluring images of women in a Western fashion magazine. Those images hold an even greater sway over Zaphira than Zamora, because she’s illiterate.
While Zamora is a maker of images, Zaphira’s only hope (or so she thinks) is to transform her daughter into one of these images. Color in this part of the film is fleetingly reserved for the glossy magazine, suggesting, perhaps, that the filmmaker sides with her protagonist. That magazine offers Zaphira a Technicolor (albeit questionable) dream of a better future for her offspring. She then sets her sights on making her daughter, at all costs, a top model. Color is restored to the narrative only at the end, when the child, now a young woman, has indeed become a runway model. The use of color for the film’s finale suggests that the end somehow justified the means, but judging by the daughter’s reaction when her mother shows up backstage years later, we know that the mother may have achieved her goal, but in doing so, she lost her daughter.
The film’s documentary-like approach to daily life in the village and the nearby mining town seem convincing. The lead character, however, remains something of a cipher: Zaphira refuses to prostitute herself, but doesn’t see that it’s inappropriate to dress her 7-year-old up like a Barbie doll, complete with a tight-fitting mini-skirt that makes her the laughing stock at school. Even more unbelievably, this otherwise model mother overrides her child’s altruistic wishes to follow in her father’s footsteps to become a nurse because as she says, “nurses are dirty and unattractive. . . .” My Moroccan colleague Saïd El Mazouari rightly identified Moi, Zaphira as a re-make of Visconti’s Bellissima(1951), wherein Anna Magnana plays Maddalena, a nurse in poverty-stricken, post-war Italy, who wants her daughter, Maria, to succeed in the movies.
But Visconti’s film both reflects on the invasion of Hollywood cinema in Italy and satirizes the fatuous desires of the Roman mother, perfectly played by Magnani. When finally Maddalena is offered the much sought-after contract for her tyke, she comes to her senses and tears the contract up. Parents who vampirize their children with their own dreams certainly exist, but on the level of the screenplay, Zaphira who seems largely virtuous, perhaps even too virtuous, seemed not entirely credible and the filmmaker’s point of view seems, well, ambiguous. Still, Moi, Zaphira has the merit of its sincerity and as an encouragement, the film received this year’s Don Quixote cinephile award, awarded by a separate jury, while at FESPACO, its lead actress, Mariame Ouédraogo was singled out for best actress.
Three Moroccan films were in the competition, including Abdeslam Kelai’s Malak, which won for best actress as it had at the Festival National du Film de Tanger last February. Malak recounts the many trials and tribulations of an unwed, teenage mother. The filmmaker told me that he developed the screenplay from his own experience working for an NGO that assists the so-called “petites bonnes,”—young girls from poor families who work as maids for wealthier families—who are single mothers. In Morocco’s urban areas, there are now associations to help these young women. But in his film, Kelai has changed the heroine’s social status so that she’s from the Moroccan middle class. I cannot help thinking that his drama would have been more powerful and more convincing if Malak were a “petite bonne” from the countryside.
Zeze Gamboa’s O Grand Kilapy relates the adventures of an Angolan Don Juan (his nickname is “Black Finger!”) studying in Lisbon during the swinging Sixties until the authorities send him back home. Based on an historical figure, the film focuses on the decade between 1965-1975 under the repressive Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. If the film has the merit of showing us an Angola socially in advance of its European colonial power where there is virtually no integration between blacks and whites, it nevertheless does little to convince us of the interest of the protagonist, despite his successes, which are legion, with the opposite sex. Does Joao Fraga become a civil rights leader just because he’s bedded so many gringas?
The last film in competition, The Children’s Republic, is a fascinating film by Flora Gomes, considered Guinea-Bissau’s foremost filmmaker. It tells the story of an African country where a group of children are autonomous and self-ruling, an African version of Lord of the Flies. Walking into the screening a little late, I was aurally bombarded by a battle scene. The high production values and particularly the intense, realistic sound, plus the presence of the American actor Danny Glover, made me feel I was watching a Hollywood film. Still, it seemed odd to show the film in Khouribga, Morocco, in an English-language version without either French or Arabic subtitles, particularly since the screening itself was defective and very often I couldn’t understand the dialogue!
It’s worth emphasizing that while some of the film’s in the line-up benefitted from the largesse of state funding, others exist by the sheer will to power of their makers, notably Zamora, Legends of Madagascar, The Children of Troumaron and Moi, Zaphira.
One of the distinguishing features of the Khouribga festival is its late night rendezvous that start at 1 a.m. and finish in the wee hours of the morning. . . . One night was reserved for a screening of Visconti’s magisterial The Leopard at the end of which the diehards numbered only a handful. It was worth it, just to hear the Prince/Burt Lancaster utter the famous, (albeit dubbed) line: “ We were leopards, lions. Those who will follow are jackals.” The Leopard is an historical film, dealing with the rise of the middle class in Italy and the country’s unification; it is also a tour de force lesson in mise en scène where each and every image has been carefully conceived. If we take seriously Shams Bhanji’s battle cry to counter the negative effects of bad television, then weekly screenings of films like The Leopard, on big screens, should be a mandatory part of education!
Tonton M’hamed Bouanani, Courtesy of Touda Bouanani
The best late night event (and for me one of the high points of this year’s festival) was the tribute that Nour-Eddine Saïl paid to filmmaker, Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011) and his wife, Naïma Saoudi. (1947-2012), both pioneers in Moroccan cinema. (In 2011, New Yorkers had the opportunity to see two of Bouanani’s films in the MoMA series, “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentalism in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now.”) Before screening clips from Ali Essafi’s documentary-in-progress on Bouanani, Saïl eloquently introduced the filmmaker to the Khouribga audience. The foundational moment in Bouanani’s life, he told us, was undoubtedly the terrible day, on the eve of Morocco’s independence in 1956, when he witnessed the assassination of his father, a policeman of the French Protectorate, at the hands of a Moroccan nationalist. In the Mauritius film, Les Enfants de Troumaron, the narrator Saadiq tells us his life was sundered in two after encountering a poem by Rimbaud in class: “That day, I understood that books could loosen the knot around your neck.” Bouanani the filmmaker was first and foremost a litterateur (novelist, poet and essayist) who would have wholeheartedly agreed on the salutary effects of literature.
Several of his films, Saïl reminded us, began as writings: at the outset, for instance, “Mémoire 14” was a poem. Saïl suggested that afterMirage (1980), which is considered one of the first Moroccan feature films and which won four prizes at the first National Film Festival in 1982, Bouanani never made a second feature film, because his novel L’Hôpital would have been too difficult to adapt for the screen.
Bouanani belonged to a transitional generation caught between two worlds. The murder of his father marked his exile within his own homeland. He became a haunted man whose mother tongue was that of the colonizer who, upon his return to Morocco, after graduating from L’IDHEC in 1963, was demonized by the then director of the CCM, Omar Ghannam, as a Communist trouble-maker for his long hair and for having written his thesis on Andrzej Wajda! Perhaps to circumvent the problem of Morocco’s multiple languages, Bouanani initially wanted to study film because he thought that the cinema was an international language. Years later, he understood his error upon seeing a Charlie Chaplin film in a Berber village where no one in the audience laughed, because the caïd had not laughed!
This poète maudit survived his mal de vivre by surrounding himself with an intimate circle. His closest friend and collaborator was his wife, Naïma, whom I had the chance to get to know, before her unexpected death last December. Saïl ended his eloquent remarks by noting that Bouanani, an avid fan of the Argentine novelist Borges, became himself a Borgesian character. This special evening closed with a screening of a short video made by Bouanani’s daughter, the videaste Touda Bouanani, reading a poem from her father to her mother (“Poème d’amour à Naïma).
“Poème d’amour à Naïma”: Still from the film “Les Quatre sources,” 1978, by A. Bouanani. Courtesy of Touda Bouanani
Their love story was legendary. Personally, I’m hoping that the Centre Cinématographique Marocain grants Ali Essafi the funds so he can soon finish his documentary on this exceptional figure–a true prince–of African film.
This year’s FCAK also included several homages, including one to the esteemed film critic Mohamed Dahane, recently deceased, who presided the jury of FCAK’s 15th edition last year. In 1972, Dahane co-founded with Ait Omar Mokhtar the Fédération de ciné-clubs in Morocco and in 1977, he was one of the founding members of the FCAK’s first edition. His thesis on Moroccan cinema was reprinted in a special issue of the French film journal, CinémAction, dedicated to Cinémas du Maghreb.
Since her arrival in Morocco in 2010, Sally Shafto has been regularly covering Moroccan and Maghrebin film. She is the author of theZanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968 (2007) and numerous articles on the French New Wave. She teaches at the Faculté Polydisciplinaire de Ouarzazate.
Special thanks to Abdellatif Regani.
 Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, “Interview: Khouribga est le seul lieu qui permet la réflexion,” transcribed by M‘barek Housni, “Bulletin du Festival du Cinéma Africain de Khouribga,” no. 3, 27 June 2013, n.p. All translations from the French are by the author.
 Quoted in: Mohamed Bakrim, “Ahmed Bouânani, Une esthétique de l”errance,” Cine Mag (Morocco), December 2006.
 Shams Bhanji, q and a with the public, Khouribga, 26 June 2013.