A Review of the 21st Festival international du cinéma méditerranéen de Tétouan
(FICMT) (March 28 – April 4, 2015)
“To us it is obvious that our only claim is to a kind of nationalism of the sun. We could never be slaves to traditions or bind our living future to exploits already dead. A tradition is a past that distorts the present. But the Mediterranean land is a lively one, full of games and joy.”
- Albert Camus -
If it was Daoud Aoulad-Syad who first told me, with great enthusiasm, about the FICMT, it was another Moroccan filmmaker, Faouzi Bensaïdi who piqued my curiosity about the city of Tetouan. Faouzi’s Death for Sale (2012), a film noir much appreciated by Martin Scorsese, uses Tetouan as its stunning backdrop. Geographically, the city is located in the Martil valley. Nestled against the Rif Mountains, it is just a few miles south of the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Still from Faouzi Bensaïdi’s Death for Sale
Although the capital during the Spanish Protectorate (1912-56), Tetouan, because of its location, remains slightly off the tourist map: it’s not included on the extensive Moroccan railroad and there’s no airport. To get there from Tangier, one either rents a car or hops into a communal grand taxi in a ride that takes around 45 minutes.
Attending the first half of the FICMT, I had a chance to sit down with its Director, Ahmed El Housni whose son is currently a student at Columbia University. The festival, he told me, evolved naturally and progressively into one focused on the Mediterranean. Three years after the founding of Morocco’s National Film Festival (which just celebrated its 16th edition) in 1982, it debuted in 1985 with a national focus, as the Rencontres Maroco-Marocaines (Morocco-Moroccan Encounters). The following year, it became the Hispano-Marocaines Rencontres (Spanish-Moroccan Encounters). Serge Toubiana, then editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma, was present that year, as was Daoud Aoulad-Syad who did a photo-reportage on the festival for the Moroccan review Kalima. In 1987 the FICMT held the Franco-Marocaines Rencontres (French-Moroccan Encounters). The next year with several well-known Arabophone film critics in attendance, it segued into a Mediterranean Festival. In 1999, the FICMT inaugurated a competition for feature-length films, shorts, and documentaries, and in 2004, it became annual.
The doyen of Mediterranean Film Festivals is undoubtedly Montpelier’s Cinémed, Festival du cinéma méditerranéen. Founded in 1979, Cinémed will celebrate its 37th edition later this year.  Morocco itself hosts a second Mediterranean Film Festival, in Tangier, that showcases Short Films; held every autumn, it is one of my favorite festivals in the country.
Ahmed El Housni, Photo S. Shafto
Like so many of my colleagues here, El Housni is a product of the distinguished Moroccan cine-club movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In his adolescence he was also a fervent Marxist-Leninist for which he paid a heavy price during the so-called Leaden Years under Hassan II. The political epithet of Marxist-Leninist brings to mind the group of young militants led by Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) in Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). But while Véronique’s revolutionary cell disbands à la rentrée, the consequences of being associated with Marxism-Leninism in Morocco appear to have been far steeper. Before his 18th birthday, El Housni was thrown in prison, he told me, for five years for his political beliefs. And he was more fortunate than some: the Jewish Communist militant Abraham Serfaty, for instance, was incarcerated for seventeen years. Still, El Housni was quick to draw a distinction between that somber period and now under the current monarch. Since his accession to the throne in 1999, Mohamed VI, popularly known as M6, has greatly succeeded in opening up the country.
Film festivals here in Morocco, where at present there are only around 30 film theatres open, play an inestimable role in the transmission of film culture. The country’s extensive network of film festivals can be divided into different categories, according to their budgets. Although the FICMT is not in the top tier, its ambitions nevertheless belie its financial modesty. In addition to the competitions, this year’s edition included master classes and several homages: the Italian Director Francesco Rosi, the Egyptian diva Fatine Hamama, Moroccan actress Touria Jabrane, the Moroccan actor Mohamed Bastaoui, and more.
Photos S. Shafto
Screenings for the FICMT were held in three venues: the Español Theatre and the Avenida Theatre, while documentary films were held at the nearby Institut français. The first two are splendid old-fashioned cinema houses; alas, the Español Theatre, currently runs the risk of being shut down.
Still from Alberto Rodriguez’s Marshland
On Saturday night the festival kicked off with a Alberto Rodriguez’ award-winning Spanish thriller La isla mínima/Marshland, that swept Spain’s Goya Awards last year (ten prizes). Beautifully shot and set in the Guadalquivir Marshes in Andalusia in the province of Seville, the film takes place in 1980, when Spain was still transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. It tells the story of two detectives from opposing political camps. They’ve been sent to this remote region to investigate the mysterious murder of several teenage girls. The opening aerial shot presents a labyrinth-like landscape, a visual metaphor for the circuitous route the two investigators will embark upon. They succeed in overcoming their ideological differences to find the killers. Pedro, the younger of the two, whose wife is expecting represents democracy and the future. In contrast, his cynical partner, Juan, is revealed to be a leftover from Franco’s Spain when he had no qualms of engaging himself in abominable methods of torture. We understand why Pedro is so eager to leave this marshland of moral ambiguity and return home.
Film festivals are convivial places for seeing old friends and making new ones. This year I had the pleasure of meeting Nabila Rezaïg from Algeria. She is in charge of the film division of AARC (Agence Algérienne pour le Rayonnement Culturel) in Alger. It was Nabila who informed me of the recent death of MoMA’s highly regarded film curator, Jytte Jensen. Nabila collaborated with Jytte (and Rasha Salti) on the three-part survey of Arab filmmakers a few years ago, “Mapping Subjectivity,” that featured, among others, the Moroccan filmmaker, Ahmed Bouanani.
Still from Kaan Müjdeci’s Sivas
This year’s festival kicked off with the Turkish entry Sivas by Kaan Müjdeci about a boy and his dog. It won the special jury prize at Venice last year and garnered the Special Jury Prize in Tetouan. Sivas tells the story of a boy, Aslan, who brings home a fighting dog, Sivas, after a violent match. He becomes upset when his family insists on making the dog resume fighting as a way to earn some much-needed cash. The film’s visuals in the Anatolian steppes are striking but the narration is out of balance. To compensate for his lack of focus, the filmmaker distracts us with excessive hand-held camera shots and violent dog fights that last too long. This is a world Müjdeci knows well; he earlier directed a documentary short on dog fighting. If the brown, bleak landscape recalls the ambiance in the award winning Turkish short “The Bicycle” that I saw several years ago at the Tangier Mediterranean Short Film Festival, Sivas is nevertheless light years away from that film.
What is particularly interesting in this film, besides its cinematography, is precisely that handsome and intelligent sheep dog who it’s clear, is a stand in for his master. Everyone needs to sign the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare.
Jilali Ferhati (left) and Daoud Aoulad-Syad during the FICMT (Photo S. Shafto)
Also present this year was the Moroccan filmmaker, Jilali Ferhati, director of eight features. Ferhati who studied at the University of Vincennes initially trained in the theatre. I much appreciate his performance in M. Abderrahmane Tazi’s film Badis (1989). Historically, aside from Orson Welles’ 1952 winning of the Cannes Grand Prix for Othello under the Moroccan flag, the first Moroccan films to show at the premiere French festival were Ferhati’s Brèche dans le mur (Semaine de la critique) and Ahmed El Maânouni’s Alyam, alyam (Un Certain regard) in 1978. In 1982 Ferhati returned to Cannes with Poupées de Roseau (Quinzaine des réalisateurs). And in 1991 he presented his La Plagedes enfants perdus at the Venice Film Festival. I’m looking forward to getting to know his filmography better.
Poster from Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s Adieu Forain
The festival honored the popular Moroccan actor Mohamed Basatoui (1954-2014) with a screening of Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s Adieu Forain (Bye-Bye Souirty, 1998), a film about itinerant performers, including a transvestite, struggling to make ends meet. The film recalls an earlier period in Moroccan history when women were banned from performing in public (as in ancient Greece, when male actors played women’s roles). Aoulad-Syad’s first film was co-written by Youssef Fadel and Ahmed Bouanani whom Daoud recognizes as an important mentor and pioneer in Moroccan film. Bouanani also edited this first feature by Aoulad-Syad and his presence is palpable in Adieu Forain. Although in color and set in a contemporary time, the film evokes a bygone time, as in Bouanani’s own Mirage (Assarab, 1979), set in the closing days of the Protectorates.
Still from Lucie Borleteau’s Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice
Another film in which there was a lot of interest was the French entry, Lucie Borleteau’s Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice, an accomplished first film. It’s tells the story of Alice (played by Ariane Labed who won the Best actress award at Locarno) employed as second mechanic on an old freighter named “Fidelio.” Although in a serious relationship with her Norwegian boyfriend, Félix, she allows herself to be seduced by the ship’s captain who is also her former lover Gaël (Melvil Poupaud). Alice thinks that she can have an affair at sea and return home and pick up as before. The security of her emotional life, however, quickly unravels when Felix discovers compromising images on her cellphone. Back at sea, now promoted thanks to the captain whose persistent advances she refuses only to seduce a younger, greener hand on ship. As the only woman on board, she’s the mistress of this male harem!
The film’s title is wonderful: it evokes both the idea of faithfulness and the eponymous opera by Ludwig van Beethoven that narrates the triumph of marital love when Leonore disguises herself as a man to save her imprisoned husband. The film’s subtitle, on the other hand, suggests the personal journey of the heroine who abruptly transforms in the course of this tale.
Fidelio has been heralded as a rare female version of the expression “sowing one’s oats.” In this sense, some critics seem to think it a filmic version of Catherine Millet’s La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001). But while Millet’s autobiographical novel is devoid of any moralizing, it’s hard not to read Fidelio as just that: a contemporary morality tale, an updated feminist version of the British film, Alfie (1966), where Alfie (Michael Caine) gets his comeuppance in the end for sleeping around and generally being a cad. Still, despite Fidelio’s relatively novel perspective, there’s no real triumph here because Alice is emotionally shattered at losing Felix whom she calls her “point d’attache” or anchor. Statistically, women have also caught up to men in heart disease in recent years.
If Alfie is the male version of this story, then Eric Rohmer’s ground-breaking hit La Collectionneuse (1967) is Fidelio’s natural antecedent. The presence of Melvil Poupaud, as a transmitter of Rohermian energy from Conte d’été (1996), suggests that the filmmaker recognizes her kinship with the French master. La Collectionneuse narrates the fascination of two young Gallic dandies (Patrick Bauchau and Daniel Pommereulle) with the nubile and promiscuous, Haydée (Haydée Politoff) who claims her right to sleep with whom she wishes. If Alfie captures a certain Sixties’ Zeitgeist, then La Collectionneuse—in a role Zouzou told me was originally intended for her (but that she turned down) and that coincides with the greater availability of the pill, thanks to its legalization with the Neuwirth law in December 1967—confirms the growing momentum of the women’s movement. As always, Rohmer is as interested in social class as he is in sexual mores, and it may be the former that prevents the haughty Patrick from bedding Haydée. Ultimately though, despite the broken vase at the end, La Collectionneuse manages to be more light-hearted than Fidelio. Alice’s profound sadness evokes an irrevocably lost paradise and Mallarmé’s famous phrase: “La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres,” as well as the title of another French film, Brigitte Rouän’s fine Post coitum, animal triste (1997).
Set Photo from Belkacem Hadjadj’s Fadhma N'soumer by Giorgos Arvanitis
The festival included the Algerian big budget film Fadhma N'soumer (not in competition) by Belkacem Hadjadj (110 mins.). A graduate of Brussels’ INSAS, Hadjadj also did a doctorate under Jean Rouch at Paris 10. A few years ago he co-produced the first Algirian musical The Square by Dahmane Ouzid that I enjoyed at the Saint-Denis’ Panorama des cinemas du Maghreb. Hadjadj devoted a decade to preparing his new film, a historical war epic about the Kabyle heroine, Fadhma N’soumer (played by the French-Lebanese actress, Laëtitia Eido who learned Kabyle for the role). Her birth in 1830 coincided with the initial establishment of French control over Algeria. Her father ran a madrassa or religious school, which she took over at his death.
In the of the colonial occupation, French authority was far from assured and fighting continued well into the mid-19th century. In 1849 the only region in northern Algeria not occupied by the French was Kabylie, many of whose inhabitants maintained a fierce opposition to the invaders. The film at times seems plodding in its historical narration. Nevertheless, it serves as a useful reminder of just how violent and determined was the French offensive that would end so tragically for both sides a century later. In 1854 Lalla Fadhma led 7,000 men and women into battle at Oued Sebaou against 35,000 French troops. Openly defying the French General Patrice de Mac-Mahon, she was recognized by the French as an Algerian Joan of Arc. She was captured and died at the age of 33. It is surely the first Algerian film to tackle this subject and deserves to be widely seen.
Abraham Ségal presenting at the Institut français, Photo S. Shafto
At lunch in Martil with a splendid view of the Mediterranean on Tuesday, I had the chance to meet the engaging French documentary filmmaker Abraham Ségal and his wife, Annie. In 1999 Ségal founded his own independent production company called “Films en quête” (Investigative Films). Later that afternoon, there was a screening of the short version of his documentary on Albert Camus, De l’Absurde à la révolte [From the Absurd to Rebellion] at the Institut français. It consists of a series of interviews (in addition to Edgar Morin, Catherine Camus, the author’s daughter; Jacques Ferrandez, author of a graphic novel based on L’Etranger; the former French Minister of Justice Robert Badinter who was responsible for the abolition of the death penalty, et al.) in an inquiry conducted by the young French philosopher, Marion Richez. Beginning her investigation with the question: “How can thought be embodied? Lived?” she grasps the fundamental but often overlooked idea that philosophy should help us live our lives better.
Catherine Camus with Marion Richez in Abraham Ségal’s When Sisyphus Rebels
(Before the film I learned from the erudite Algerian film critic, Mohamed Bensalah that Luchino Visconti had done a film adaptation of Camus’ best known novel L’Etranger (1967). I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. During his life Camus had undoubtedly rightly refused all film offers. But then his widow gave her permission to Visconti, only to interfere with his vision of the film. It’s available on youtube. Starring a seriously miscast Marcello Mastroianni as the disillusioned Meursault, and Anna Karina as his girlfriend, the final film is an interesting albeit terribly failed curio.)
The longer version of Ségal’s documentary, entitled When Sisyphus Rebels, is even more satisfying: the interviews are more in depth and there are more of them (the well-known American professor-scholar, Alice Kaplan, is missing, for example, in the shorter version). Dedicated to Stéphane Hessel, When Sisyphus Rebels seems vital in these troubled times and it too deserves to be widely seen. It revisits Camus’ substantial contribution not just to ideas, but also (and more importantly) to ethics: between his mother and justice, he once said, he would choose his mother. No Robespierrist ideologue, Camus didn’t believe that the world should conform to ideas. People first, principles later. Today, when human beings have been reduced, in the words of Catherine Camus, to little more than market shares, don’t we all need a friend like Camus who tells us, as he did to René Char, Roger Grenier, and undoubtedly countless others: “Je ne te laisserai jamais tomber.” (I’ll never abandon you.)
Alas, other commitments forced me to return to Tangier half-way through the Tetouan Festival, but what better film than this one on Albert Camus, whose life and work were so intimately connected to the sea the Romans called “mare nostrum” (our sea), to have closed on.
For more on this year’s FICMT and this year’s award-winners, please consult its website at:
 It’s worth noting that later this year Aoulad-Syad will have a retrospective of his photography at the Maison européenne de la photographie in Paris. He is first Moroccan photographer to have a retrospective at the MEP.
 Here’s a short, non-exhaustive round-up of Mediterranean Film Festivals:
•Festival internation du cinéma méditerranéen de Tetouan, 21st edition in 2015:
•Festival international du court-métrage méditerranéen de Tangier, 13th edition in 2015:
•Cinémed, Festival du cinéma méditerranéen in Montpelier, 37th edition in 2015:
 On the heels of the FICMT, I attended the opening ceremony of the Cap Spartel Short Film Festival in Tangier. By a strange coincidence, I saw Brigitte Rouän in Jilali Ferhati’s 1995 film Chevaux de fortune, one of the first Moroccan films dealing with illegal immigration.
 The general and also second President of the French Third Republic who without knowing it, would lend his name years later to the legendary movie house, located on the Avenue Mac-Mahon in Paris’ 17th arrondissement.
 Antoine de Baecque, “L’Echec de Visconti,” L’Histoire, no. 347 (November 2009): 28 and available online: