Location hub churning out art of its own

BEIRUT — In the movie business, Morocco is most often thought of as a location for Hollywood blockbusters, a place to film Middle Eastern-flavored settings in relative safety.

Morocco is also encouraging local directors, though, and many are tackling subjects that would have been unthinkable in years past: religion, sex, criminality and the desire to leave the country by any means.

“My ambition is to penetrate appearances, to denounce taboos and outmoded social norms that do great damage,” says seasoned director Latif Lahlou, whose feature “Samira’s Garden” is the sole Moroccan film competing in this year’s Marrakech Intl. Film Festival.

The film’s portrayal of an urbane young woman forced to wed an aged, brutal farmer is sure to touch raw nerves in a country suffering the growing pains of modernization and the deepening class cleavages of economic liberalization, both processes in which Morocco’s movie industry is playing a major part.

“Arranged marriage certainly exists in societies grappling with traditional mores,” Lahlou says. “For me, it was a pretext to reflect on problematic social conventions and on how the observance of them can generate inexplicable situations and engender grave misfortunes.”

Back in the 1960s, Lahlou pioneered Morocco’s film culture at a time when the country’s politicians deemed movies superfluous to the national interest.

The situation has changed dramatically since then. Morocco turned out only 100 films in total between 1969 and 1998 (an average annual rate of less than four), but since the late 1990s the rate has grown to a dozen a year. The authorities now consider cinema a vital economic sector, and their goal is 40 local films a year by 2020. To do so, they are creating funds to finance productions with budgets of around $6 million per film.

But there are risks. From newcomer Laila Marrakchi, whose first feature, the controversial “Marock,” was a box office smash, to Faouzi Bensaidi, Nabil Ayouch and Narjiss Nejjar, the current crop of Moroccan filmmakers is bent on shattering limits on what can be portrayed onscreen.

“‘Marock’ was a big controversy in Morocco,” Marrakchi says. The story traced a young Muslim-Jewish romance against a backdrop of mounting religious conservatism.

“Even though this happens in real life, it’s more difficult to show it in films. Some people didn’t accept (it), but I wanted to show the reality of this country. These stories are real, they exist and they are a part of this country … I didn’t just want to be provocative … The most important thing is to defend our ideas about the world and our freedom. Film is important because it’s a mirror of society. It’s a good way for us to accept what we are.”

The reception of Nejjar’s “Wake Up Morocco,” about faith, freedom and soccer, was equally heated. “This is my way of seeing and feeling Morocco,” Nejjar says. “It is my Morocco. … I just want to feel free in my country. It is just the experience of knowing what is waiting for us in this country if we are not aware. There are many moralists among us. I’m not talking about politics. I am talking about citizenship. I don’t have arms. I just have images.”

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