Desert lion set to roar

Morocco's film, TV push barriers with high-quality fare

CASABLANCA — Secret love,” cooes Ahmed as Lola opens the door of her New York bedsit, dressed only in a pink-pinstripe shirt.

“Slut!” Ahmed adds in mock reproof. Lola (Laura Ramsey) pouts, slams the door. “And cut and print,” says director Nabil Ayouch. He has just wrapped another shot on the costliest pic ever from a Moroccan filmmker, Pathe’s English-language, $12 million “Whatever Lola Wants,” a New York-Cairo femme friendship tale.

A few days later, directors Khalil Benkirane and Nour-eddine Lakhmari sit on an uptown Casablanca cafe terrace. They chat excitedly.

Benkirane has docu “The White Thread” near completion. It follows San Francisco deejay Cheb i Sabbah as he records and remixes Moroccan villagers’ ancient songs with New World rhythms. One of its points — it has many — is that not only the music but also the musicians’ feelings, their glee as a song comes together, can be totally accessible for Western auds.

Lakhmari’s TV movie “The Affair” aired in October. It stars the sassy Noufissa Benchehida as the first-ever femme cop protag on Moroccan TV. And in the Ain Leuh Moroccan backwoods, she kicks the red-necked establishment’s ass.

“TV’s opening up so much. We’re part of something new, a movement,” Lakhmari glows.

As in ’70s Spain or ’90s Korea, growing freedom has energized Moroccan film and TV. Ayouch, Benkirane and Lakhmari are all thirtysomething directors, all are pushing back barriers.

But there are barriers: 48% of adult Moroccans are illiterate. Many feared speaking out under former King Hassan II. In such a climate, film and especially TV directors “establish a balance of what can be said and how to say it, we try to help things move forward,” Benkirane says.

Morocco needs modernization. The alternative could be retrenchment in Islamic fundamentalism. Bollywood holds sway at rural hardtops; high-bracket Egyptian and Mexican soap operas play in primetime. Moroccan films score festival kudos. But producers and execs are taking inventory.

“We’ve finished a first stage: producing quality films. The next stage is international distribution,” says vet director-producer Latif Lahlou, who is shooting marriage-on-the-rocks drama “Les jardins de Samira.”

“We’ve built up some momentum; now we have to accelerate,” says Faical Laraichi, prexy of pubcasters SNRT and 2M.

Public and private sectors are driving toward the same goals:

  • State Fonds d’Aide film subsidies rose 66% in 2006 to MAD50 million ($5.8 million).

  • Pic production levels are creeping up — 10 completed movies through October with another six in post, not to mention 50 TV movies, 16 from the independent production house Ali’N/SNRT Film Industry project, some already with film fest exposure.

  • TV is goosing Moroccan production. From 2006, first-ever Cahiers de Charges TV quotas oblige pubcaster SNRT, including channel TVM, to co-produce or pre-buy 20 movies, 15 telepics, four series and 12 documentaries a year; the pubcaster must spend 30% of its production budget on independently produced shows.

  • More big foreign shoots are rolling in Morocco: New Line’s “The Nativity Story,” U’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

  • Morocco is plexing. Having run a 14-plex in Casablanca, distribber/exhibber Megarama is opening a seven-screen multi in Marrakech next month. Multiplexes are expected to follow in Agadir, Tanger and Rabat.

Casablanca, Morocco’s New York, boasts hip-hop gangs, sushi bars, gleaming highways, satellite dishes and slums.

Construction — of holiday homes, hotels, new dormitory towns — is rampant along the coast. Mobile penetration runs at 41%.

Equally, Morocco’s film-makers are mapping out a modern cinema. Brahim Chkiri’s “L’Enveloppe” is Morocco’s first kick-boxing film, while Faouzi Bensaidi’s Venice player, “WWW-What a Wonderful World,” is a thinking man’s serial-killer thriller: Fundamentalists claim Moroccan serial killers don’t exist.

Mixing social point and a painter’s palette, “Why the Sea?,” the fiction debut of Chicago-based Hakim Belabbes, intersects the Kiarostami-esque tale of the lives of Casablanca fishermen with a family ghoul — a “Ring” dead ringer.

Yassine Fennane’s “Aller, retour en enfer” features kooky but short-fused hitmen; Ali Mejboud’s sometimes equally off-center “La vague blanche” charts a worker’s easy slide into cocaine dealing.

“We’re proving we can produce quality films on very reasonable budgets. It’s a new start,” says Laraichi.

Tuned in

A paradigm shift is at work on TV. In May, Morocco’s HACA broadcasting authority awarded one private TV franchise to the Jacques Chirac-backed Medi 1 SAT, a French-Morrocan news channel, reportedly launching shortly. SNRT bowed Koranic feed Assadissa last year and sports channel Arriyadiya in September, an immediate hit; DTT will follow later in the year, and an HD channel early 2007, says Laraichi.

Moroccan fiction has to compete against hundreds of foreign satcast channels, plus U.S. fiction such as the 2M-aired “Prison Break.”

Local TV has started to meet the challenge. Over October’s Ramadan, SNRT test-launched “The Brigade,” Morocco’s first police skein; 2M bowed sci-fi drama “The Other Dimension.”

Laraichi is now prepping a Letterman-like Saturday latenight chat show, a skein about Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta and “a mythical hero series.” But Morocco’s transition has a long way to go.

In 2005, Moroccan films commanded a fair 20.6% domestic market share. But B.O. is in freefall, and recoupment tortuous. DirectorSaid Naciri says he only saw $200,000 from theatrical on 2004 smash hit “Crooks”: some cinemas simply didn’t pay.

Abroad, few films — “Marock,” “The Sleeping Child” — manage to sell beyond France.

“We need sales agents working on commission,” argues Lahlou. This puts Ayouch’s “Lola” ahead of the curve in not only budget but backing — from Pathe and Eberts. “For the first, I have the ability to touch a worldwide audience, I want to get to mid-America,” Ayouch says. Driven by change, that enthusiasm is contagious. “It’s as if a lion was in a cage. And now the door’s open,” says Lakhmari. And he let’s out a delighted roar.

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