Festival du Court-Métrage Méditerraneen de Tanger 2013
The Mediterranean has always been a space of exchanges of all kinds, much more than a frontier. Of conflicts too, and for hundreds of years, a place of passage for armies. Such is the case of the first Islamic advances in the 8th century, after the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 and the installation of the Arabic governors in Cordova. It’s also the case of the Crusades towards Jerusalem, which took place primarily on the land, but which also passed by the sea.
- Fernand Braudel -
Since moving to Morocco in 2010, I have had the opportunity to attend many film festivals. The Festival du Court-Métrage Méditerranéen de Tanger (FCMMT) is, hands down, one of my favorites. Over a week in Tangier, attendees watch short films coming from the all over the Mediterranean basin; the festival represents an exciting mix of films and cultures by filmmakers some of whom are novices, while others are more experienced. Several of this year’s screenings were attended by the current Minister of Communication and the Spokesperson for the Moroccan Government, Mustapha El Khalfi whom I have had the pleasure to meet on two occasions; as an anglophone, Minister El Khalfi who studied in the U.S., represents the Moroccan young generation.
At the government’s behest, the 2013 edition of the FCMMT had to make do with a significantly smaller budget. In 2012, the FCMMT had a budget of 3,500,000.00 MAD ($ 429,520); this year, only 2,000,000.00 MAD ($ 245,440). While a 40% reduction could have asphyxiated another festival, the FCMMT, which is one of the festivals organized by Nour-Eddine Saïl and his seasoned staff at the Centre Cinématographique Marocain, managed if not to flourish, at least to save face, thanks to the CCM’s judicious organization. Needless to say, the draconian budget cuts translated into some concrete changes and attendance was noticeably down this year. In 2011, the festival showcased, in addition to the in-competition films, a generous panorama of recent Moroccan shorts that was deleted this year. The festival was also forced to change venues. Instead of being held at the capacious Roxy cinema, the festival was programmed at the more intimate Cinémathèque de Tanger (the former Rif Cinema). It makes sense for the CCM to collaborate with the Cinémathèque de Tanger, the première art-house cinema in North Africa founded in 2007 by a group of Tangerois.
According to Tariq Khalami, spokesperson for the CCM, submissions were also way down for the 2013 edition. Last year, the CCM received 800 films; this year, only 600. Khalami attributes this decrease to the general economic morosity in much of the Mediterranean. (One filmmaker referred to his film as having been made not on a “low budget” but rather a “love budget”! Not surprisingly, many films in this year’s festival were in that category.) Forty-six films competed this year, with fourteen or 32% by female directors. Eighteen countries were represented, with five countries showing five films: France, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Turkey; Spain followed with four.
One of my favorite films is the Tunisian short, “Wooden Hands” by Kaouther Ben Hnia. It tells the story of 5-year-old Amira who doesn’t like her religious school (kottaba). In the opening scene, the Medeb or Fquih notices that she is not paying attention while the other children are reciting their Koranic lessons. As punishment, he calls her up in front of the class to repeat the responses all alone. But she cannot. Instead, Amira out of fear or embarrassment pees while standing before her peers who then gleefully poke fun at her by calling her “la pisseuse.” At home, Amira announces to her mother (her father apparently is recently deceased, although we are not told how or why) she no longer wants to go to school. To ensure her end, the little girl glues her hand to the arm of a wooden chair! Amira doesn’t use any-old glue, but rather the permanent kind that proves terribly efficient: henceforth, she can’t move without the chair!
With the help of a neighbor, the mother manages to transport the child to school where Amira holds court over her classmates, thanks to her elevated position. Amira’s new status puts the Fqhih in an awkward, inferior position, forcing him to also seek a chair to regain his position of authority. With admirable mischievousness, Amira then disrupts the class by asking to go to the bathroom. . . . To satisfy her demand, the teacher is forced to carry her with her accompanying cumbersome appendage to the bathroom. Once inside, she waits a few minutes before flushing the toilet and returning to her place. The pisseuse has succeeded in her revenge. After school, her mother takes her to a doctor who tells her the only solution is to order a special liquid that will dissolve the glue, but that is only available from abroad! In the end, Amira seems to have gotten her wish of quitting her school when she reveals to a playmate her new, “ugly” doll, decked out in her former school smock.
The foregoing synopsis hardly does justice to this little gem of a film that stands out for its mise-en-scène where everything, including the colors are very carefully chosen. Particularly memorable are the scenes with the children with their uniforms (black and white checkers with bright red trim) and the mother in bright blue and green. In addition, the yellowish sepia tone of the film, à la Amélie Poulain (2001), lends it a certain fairy-tale quality.
“Wooden Hands” also stands out for its humor; it’s one of the few films that allowed the audience a few laughs. Shot in a week and financed by the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, the film is based on a newspaper story or fait divers. Its director, Kaouther Ben Hnia, who studied in both Tunisia and France, was born in Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab Spring began just three years ago with the tragic immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. Her 2010 documentary Imans Go to School discusses the modernization of Islam in contemporary France.
Kaouther Ben Hnia during a press conference: to her left, Italian filmmaker Pierluigi Ferrandini
In a 2011 interview, when asked what her counsel would be for young filmmakers, she replied: “To be humble, to avoid certitudes. Only doubt can make us better, better filmmakers, better people.”  I’m already looking forward to her next film.
Another film that struck me for its subtlety is Karim El Shenawy’s exceptional “Odd” (2012, 13 minutes). The only Egyptian entry in this year’s festival and an adaptation of a short story by Haitham Dabbour, it recounts the daily calvary of a Copt pharmacist who lives on the 11th floor of an apartment building where all his neighbors are Muslim (We know he’s a Christian by the decoration of his apartment.) As in the Tunisian film, the theme of pissing on oneself here becomes important. But while the young Amira turns the situation to her advantage, Adel, the protagonist, in “Odd,” pays the price for his passivity. In the opening scene, the pharmacist leaves his apartment, only to rush back several seconds later, for a bathroom emergency. When he finally leaves, he is inexplicably forced to wait for the elevator. That evening, the elevator that services his part of the building—that is, the odd-numbered floors—is out of order; the building superintendent tells him, with a smile, that the best thing to do is to walk up the eleven flights of stairs!
The next day is his young son’s birthday and Adel returns home with a cake. The super tells him that the workers have just about finished repairing the elevator and he can come along to test it. The pharmacist accompanies the super and another man in the elevator that immediately begins playing an Islamic prayer as the elevator begins its ascent. The lead actor, the prominent Egyptian actor, Khaled El Nabawy who came to attention in Youssef Chahine’s 1994 The Emigrant, had a small role in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and who earlier this year played the lead role in the American independent feature The Citizen, is brilliant in the part; in the thirteen minutes of the film, he speaks but two words, spoken at the end of the film. The handsome El Nabawy resembles an Egyptian Clark Kent, albeit a suffering one, as his face registers various degrees of annoyance, frustration and pain. Arriving finally at the 11th floor, he is greeted by his son who opens the elevator door; the son’s expression quickly changes from happiness to surprised dismay as the camera pans down Adel’s body to reveal that he has wet himself. . . . while the father shrugs as way of apology. The son grabs the cake and lets the door close, allowing his dad to make one more round-trip in the newly-fixed elevator. El Shenawy, a recent graduate of Goldsmiths, the University of London, has created an intelligent and courageous short film that touches on the sensitive topic of other, non-hegemonic communities (for whom there are no accurate statistics) existing within Arab countries.  The existing tensions between different communities was also the subject in the Lebanese short “In the Name of Honor,” by Nathalie Leclerq, where the situation, tragically, becomes one of life or death when Léa’s family, who are Christian, learns she’s pregnant by her Muslim boyfriend.
“Wooden Hands” was one of several films this year that focused on a child protagonist.
Another is Pierlugi Ferrandini’s Oroverde (Greengold, Italy) that tells the true story of a child laborer, a young girl, in a tobacco factory in Puglia, in southern Italy in the 1930s. Beautifully filmed, Oroverde is told as a flashback by an elderly woman who remembers her childhood and her beloved older brother who was tragically killed in a workers’ protest. Filmed on a shoestring budget in three days, the film is memorable for its overhead shots of the tobacco plants, the famous “green gold” of the title. During the q and a with the audience the next morning, one person mysteriously (and erroneously) claimed that the film would have been more powerful if it had been filmed in black and white. The director reminded us that the Mediterranean, where until recently people lived off the land, features many narratives. Occurring during the Fascist period, this short is not about Fascism, but about workers’ rights. It reminded me of an exhibit I saw a couple of years ago in North Adams, Massachusetts on the exploitation of children in the North Adams factories in the early years of the 20th century.
“Matilde” (Italy) tells the true story of a little girl who wears a device because she is hard of hearing. In order to restore her auditory equilibrium, she comes up with an ingenious solution. Vito Palmieri’s film won Best Screenplay this year.
“Ammore” is another Italian short focused on a child. It bravely tackles the tough subject of child molestation and incest where a young girl, Rosy, dressed like a miniature Barbie doll, heads off to have an abortion in someone’s apartment. The film is well executed; I only wonder if the purposely incorrect title is really the best choice. The misspelling in Italian suggests, of course, that the title is from Rosy’s point of view, but the final scene, when her father knocks repeatedly on her bedroom door, makes clear that she knows very well that, to paraphrase Tina Turner song, “love’s got nothing to do with it.”
Thematically, violence against women was a leitmotif in this year’s festival. In Xavier Legrand’s Avant que de tout perdre(France, 2012), the well-known French actress Léa Drucker plays an abused wife on the run from her husband. The performances are all excellent.
The film “Jezebel” by Moroccan filmmaker Amir Rouani tells the troubling story of two men, one a doctor, both in love with same woman. She marries the doctor, but apparently cheats on her husband with his best friend; the film narrates the doctor’s revenge when he drugs her and then orders an excision of her sexual organs by an African woman hired specially for the occasion. . . . During the q and a, the filmmaker told us he made the film to raise consciousness against a despicable practice against women, still frequent in Subsaharan Africa, but he didn’t explain why he chose to set the film in Morocco. The filmmaker seemed unaware that his title immediately cues the ambiguity of the film’s pov, by labeling the female character—whose character remains completely under-developed—the guilty party and thus somehow meriting the punishment meted out to her.
The Algerian film “A Life without Life” (I note, as an aside, that the English translations were often far from felicitous), on the other hand, suffers from the opposite problem, for being overly heavy-handed from the female pov. It tells the story of the young student, Nadya, in Algeria whose family forces her into an arranged marriage with an Algerian living in France. Still, the film has the merit of depicting an apparently common reality where Maghrebin women are lured to France with the promise of a better life, but where instead their lives become a living hell, married to spouses who treat them like maids (or worse) and for whom marriage is little more than a convenient façade to hide other activities, including homosexuality.
In criticizing the Moroccan film “Jezebel,” I am forced to consider Western images that represent violence to women. One famous example that comes to mind is Marcel Duchamp’s last work on which he worked for twenty years, the Etant donnés(1944-1966; today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) where through a peep-hole in a massive door we are privy to what seems to be the scene of a crime: a naked female body is awkwardly displayed for the viewer’s gaze. Duchamp’s work of art inspired Bruno Dumont’s strangely haunting film L’Humanité (1999).
Duchamp also seems to be on the mind of another French director, Léa Mysius, whose short film “Cadavre exquis” tells the story of a young girl living in the country who discovers one days a female cadaver in the grass. The child washes the body and bizarrely converses with it: “J’espère que tu vas bien, parce que moi, ça va très bien.” Two other films in this year’s lineup feature the murder of women: “The Other” (Spain) by Jorge Dorado and “Daniel” (France) by Alexandra Grau De Sola who noted that “the cinema is just a mirror of society.” The foregoing begs the question: has the economic crisis resulted in an escalating of domestic violence? I have no answer, but it seems plausible that such is the case.
A tour de force film by the Turkish male director, Abdurrahman Öner, on the other hand, features female violence against a man, which is purportedly also on the rise (but remains statistically far inferior to the reverse.) Filmed in black and white and in a single plan sequence, “Vanished into Blue” opens in a steady shot on a television screen, where we listen to a confessional talk show, with women talking about their unhappy marriages, while in the foreground, a woman sets the table for dinner. When her husband comes home, the camera moves left to reframe on a large rectangular mirror: this become another television screen where we see the dinner table reflected. In the ensuing conversation between the couple, we learn the woman can’t have children. Her husband tells her she’s cursed; he wants to marry someone else and send her away. At this point, the kettle in front of the mirror has started to boil, steaming up the mirror and obscuring our view. When the husband asks for an ashtray, the wife gets up and plants a knife in his back. As the steam subsides, we see him collapsed on the floor as the woman continues as if nothing has happened and the voices of the guests on the t.v. talk show continue in the auditory background sharing their personal stories. This film won for Best Direction. (Again, the English title is not ideal. . . The husband is dead, but he has not “vanished into the blue” and adjective “blue” in the title for a film in black and white is decidedly unhelpful. A better choice would have been simply to translate the French title “Vapeur” as “Steam.”)
One film by a male director, by the British director of Moroccan origin Fayçal Boulifa, sympathetically addresses the regular harassment facing Moroccan women, even by children. “The Curse” tells the story of a young woman in an unpromising desert landscape? In an outdoor tryst with her lover, who promises he will help her to emigrate, she is spied upon by a gaggle of malevolent kids. To silence them, she is forced to provide a sexual service to another man in return for a paltry sum to buy candies and soda pop. Included in the 2012 Quinzaine des réalisateurs at Cannes, “The Curse” won for both Best Actress and the Special Jury Prize in Tangier.
One film that humorously addresses head-on the dire financial situation facing many individuals in the southern Mediterranean is the Greek film “Chelsea-Barcelona” by Alexandros Chantzis. The only hint that the film’s setting is the cradle of Western civilization is a reverse shot of the bank interior where the protagonist, Andreas, works where we see a life-size replica of the statue of Poseidon in the background. Andreas, is up to his neck in debt for his house, his car and his cell phone. He can’t get a loan, although he’s a model employee at the bank. He’s so virtuous that when he goes on a cigarette break with a coworker, he simply resigns himself to sniffing the fag! Andreas is a kind of overweight, Greek Everyman who loses it at the end when his girlfriend, Angelika, blows off their date. If nothing else, he can take some solace in the fact that his favorite soccer team, Chelsea, has soundly trounced Barcelona (in the famous 2009 match). With the current economic crisis, it seems likely that watching group sports on t.v. has become an important refuge for many men. Soccer also figures in the Spanish film “Hooligan hairdresser” by Juan Manuel Aragon.
Old age is another topic that recurred in this year’s selection. One film, “The Apple of my Eye” by the Spanish director Josecho de Linares, pays homage to his special rapport with his grandmother. Another film, the enigmatically titled “Chamomile” by Greek director, Neritan Zinxhiria, narrates the travails of an elderly Greek woman to properly bury her deceased husband during a harsh winter. I remember an art historian once glossing Brueghel the Elder’s “The Hunters in the Snow” (1565), by pointing out how difficult it is to paint the white of snow. . . . In his dialogueless film, Zinxhiria masterfully creates a snow-bound landscape in Northern Greece.
Attending a short film festival is both an exhilarating and frustrating experience, as viewers are confronted with multitudinous stories whose full-scope is sometimes beyond their immediate ken. One such film for me was the Moroccan film “Réglage” co-directed by Driss Gaidi and Hicham Ragragui. The Moroccan critic, Mohamed Bakrim, the moderator in the q and a the next morning, usefully told us, that this short represents the first Moroccan film to tackle the Polisario, a topic that remains a controversial subject in Morocco. Years after being imprisoned in Tindouf, the hero attempts to recover a watch that he left long before in a pawn shop.
Another film whose full measure I can’t gauge is the Lebanese short, “Behind the Olive Trees” that discusses recent history in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Specifically, the film addresses the taboo topic of Lebanese soldiers who haven collaborated with the Israeli enemy. It tells the story of a young woman, Myriam (played by the filmmaker), and her much younger brother, who after the death of their mother, are forced to fend for themselves and discover that no one in southern Lebanon has forgotten who their father is.
In the Mediterranean community, Portugal has an unusual position, because it is Mediterranean by culture, if not geographically. Joao Viana’s striking “Tabato,” is set in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau. In the 16th century, Lisbon was the most African city on the Iberian peninsula, with 20% of its population made up of slaves and former slaves. “Tabato” reminds us of colonialism’s mixed legacy in Africa and the ongoing strife in many African countries such as Guinea-Bissau. In a beautiful black and white with brief red passages, “Tabato” is an excerpt from Viana’s feature film, The Battle at Tabato that won a special award for a first film at the 2013 Berlinale. (I note in passing that Joao Viana’s earlier short “Alfama,” also in black and white, was one of my favorite films in the 2011 FCMMT.)
Another reminder of the Portuguese overseas empire is the film, “37° 4S,” (France), shot on the volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic. From Wikipedia, I learn that it is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world (the closest island to it is Saint Helena where Napoleon was exiled!) and that it was first discovered by the Portuguese explorer, Tristao da Cunha in 1506. If “Jezebel” is a revenge film, then “37° 4S” is a liebensangst film for its filmmaker, the Italian-born Adriano Valerio. It’s the story of two enamored teen-agers, Nick and Anne. The film is told entirely from Nick’s perspective in voice-over, as he anguishes over the imminent departure of his girlfriend who plans to continue her studies in London. The voice-over is strangely moving (although it’s clear that that voice does not belong to the young man we see onscreen.) Nick loves their bucolic life on the island and wants nothing more than for everything to stay the same. It’s a moving film about change and anticipated loss, another effect of the current global crisis. At one point, he invokes the verbal talisman of“inch’allah,” telling us it’s a word his grandfather learned years before, while at sea in the Mediterranean. But then the narrator quickly adds that he would prefer not leaving the choice up to allah. . . In a category all by itself, “37° 4S” was rightly awarded this year’s Grand Prix.
This year’s festival included a brief homage to the recently deceased Hamid Amidou. Born in 1935, he was the first Moroccan actor to have achieved international acclaim. Amidou made his début in France with Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Genet’s play on the Algerian War, Les Paravents, at the Odeon Theatre in 1968. He was a regular in the films of Claude Lelouch with whom he regularly collaborated and appeared in several Hollywood productions (Otto Preminger, Rosebud, 1975; William Friedkin, Sorcerer, 1977; John Huston, Victory, 1981; John Frankenheimer, Ronin, 1998). In Morocco, Amidou is best remembered for playing the principal role in M.A. Tazi’s Lalla Hobbi (1997).
Mohamed El Gahs with CCM Director, Nour-Eddine Saïl
One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the talk, entitled “The Mediterranean Possibility,” given by the President of this year’s Jury, Mohamed El Gahs, the former director and news editor of the Moroccan newspaper Libération and former Secretary of State in charge of Youth. El Gahs is also the founder of the Popular Universities in Morocco. He spoke at length on the challenges facing Mediterranean countries today to find common cause, to construct a common space under the threat of terrorism, illegal immigration, xenophobia, economic crisis, etc. And he emphasized the plurality of the Mediterranean’s origins.
El Gahs rightly called the cinema, as a collaborative undertaking, a political metaphor: no one can exist without others. (Or in the words of the English poet, John Donne: “No man is an island unto himself.”) At this point, El Gahs mentioned Fernand Braudel’s magnum opus, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (written while he was in German captivity during the war and first published in 1949), a foundational work for the Annales School of historians, that examines man in his social and geographical context. Braudel is a tutelary figure par excellence for a festival devoted to Mediterranean films. Recognizing the “suffering of the marginalized” and realizing that most historical sources come from the affluent, Braudel highlighted the contribution of slaves, peasants and the urban poor to history, like the child laborer in the Italian film Greengold or the Filippino maid in the powerful Chypriote film “Anna” by Spiros Charalambous.
Fellow jury member, the French film producer and co-organizer of the extensive Maghreb des Films programme in France, Gérard Vaugeois, noted, in an aside after El Gahs’ talk, the limitations of the European Union, where southern countries are continually chastized by Berlin and argued instead for a viable Mediterranean Union, a project initially spearheaded but then abandoned by former President Sarkozy. Politicians interested in such a union would do well to attend this annual film festival that provide both an overview and insight into the rich plurality and the problems facing the Mediterranean world today.