Tyro helmers tackle taboos and technology

“In Morocco, we have to invent our own model for the film industry,” says producer-director Nabil Ayouch. “We need to highlight the role of writers and creative producers and learn from best practices in countries such as India, Ireland and Spain.”

The 39-year-old Paris-born Ayouch is a classic example of the new breed of Morocco filmmakers, who are willing to tackle former taboos and embrace new technologies in order to jumpstart the Moroccan film business.

“We’re seeing a new wave of young people making films in Morocco,” explains 37-year-old helmer Mohamed Chrif Tribak, “which is excellent because we have a mosaic of different races, cultural influences and landscapes and need new voices to reflect this diversity.”

Perched on the northwest tip of Africa, Morocco (“The Western Kingdom”) stands at a key cultural and geographic crossroads between Europe, Africa and the 333-million-strong Arabic-speaking world — one of the planet’s biggest entertainment markets.

While Morocco’s rural villages and ancient medinas still have a medieval feel, the country is mirroring Western trends and on Oct. 13 this year was granted “advanced status” by the EU on the path to progressive integration in the European Single Market.

Cinephile and “modernizer” King Mohammed VI is a staunch supporter of local film production.

Under his reign, funding support and national production have doubled, and far more ambitious plans are now in the making.

In 2007, Moroccan cinema forged an impressive 16% share of the country’s $7.4 million total box office, with five titles in the country’s top 10.

The government now aims to boost the national box office to $40 million by 2017, with the aim of 40 local productions per year generating a 30% box office share.

Hollywood (39% of admissions) and Bollywood (32%) currently provide the lion’s share of national audiences, the former shown primarily in plush multiplexes, the latter in dilapidated old theaters.

Film admissions slumped from 10.8 million in 2002 to 3.3 million in 2007, but the exhibition business is about to be revolutionized through the creation of 17 multiplexes by 2017 and some 50 low-cost screens (with tickets under $1), with the first four two-screen theaters set to open in Casablanca in November.

“One of our key tasks,” explains Nour-Eddine Sail, director of the Centre Cinematographique Marocain (CCM), “is to build 150 new screens over the next four to five years.”

In 2007 the CCM commissioned a strategy report that set out a goal of fivefold growth of the industry over the next 10 years.

“In Morocco, we’ve developed a cinema of proximity,” says Sail. “Our films speak to people with stories that capture their imagination, backed up by growing professionalism and a nascent star system.”

Alongside CCM, the other key local player is pubcaster SNRT, which acquires 40 feature films and more than 200 hours of series per year.

SNRT chief exec Faical Laraichi highlights the broadcaster’s emphasis on “creativity, new talent, daring and the need to tell universal stories.”

New talent includes homegrown directors, foreign-trained helmers and second generation emigrants returning home, who are jointly introducing new themes and genres into the local film biz.

Madrid-based tyros Swel Noury (28 years old) and Imad Noury (23) — whose father Hakim is one of Morocco’s most respected directors — dazzled with their stylish debut feature “Heaven’s Doors” and recently started shooting “The Man Who Sold the World,” a war zone-set thriller based on Dostoyevsky’s short story “A Weak Heart.”

Groundbreaking helmer Mohamed Chrif Tribak bowed the rough cut of “Time of Comrades” at the 2008 San Sebastian Film Festival; that pic is about the murders of student Marxist leaders by Islamist radicals. He’s now prepping “Mesbia,” about two women imprisoned in a house in Morocco in the 1950s.

Boundary-pushing pics have had legs at the box office. Thirty-three-year-old female helmer Laila Marrakchi topped the local box office in 2006 with her first feature, “Marock,” about a Jewish-Arab love affair, and last year’s top pic was “The Satanic Angels,” about hard rockers accused of Satanism, directed by Moroccan-Irish Ahmed Boulane.

This year’s No. 1 slot is occupied by Ayouch’s $12 million English-language belly-dancing drama “Whatever Lola Wants,” produced by Pathe. The film has been sold to 33 territories and generated 100,000 admissions in France.

Ayouch is now completing a $5 million 30-film slate — as well as the 30-film “Film Industry — Made in Morocco” initiative for pubcaster SNRT — with an additional 12 films planned for 2009. Ayouch also runs the EU-funded MEDA Films Development program that aims to groom producers and writers from the southern Mediterranean rim countries — Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.

The next step is to consolidate the national industry and expand international bridges.

“This is a long process,” Sail says. “We already have Moroccan films in major international festivals, but our immediate priority is to build our success at home — from there we can start to look abroad.”

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