In the fourteenth year since King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne, and celebrating the thirteenth edition of the Marrakech international film festival, the local film industry is officially entering its teens, marked by a substantial presence in the local box office and a rising presence in film festivals throughout the world.
“We’re an island in the region” explains leading Moroccan helmer, Nabil Ayouch. “In the Maghreb film festival, held in early November in Algiers, most of the prizes were won by Moroccan films. This highlights the state of grace we’ve been enjoying over recent years.”
Local films have consistently occupied the top slots in the national box office since the mid-2000s, albeit against a background of closing cinemas and sliding admissions.
Moroccan films have often been a lifesaver for the country’s few remaining large picture palaces, given that buoyant audience admissions for local titles have enabled them to remain afloat.
In 2012, the top two films were Brahim Chkiri’s comedy road-movie, “The Road to Kabul” replete with special effects, and Said Naciri’s crime comedy “A Moroccan in Paris”.
44-year old Brahim Chkiri, who grew up in Brussels, is a classic example of the new Moroccan cinema, having cut his teeth by directing nine genre films within the 42-film Film Industry project launched in 2006 by Faical Laraichi, prexy of pubcaster SNRT, and director Nabil Ayouch.
Other local Young Turks include Madrid-based duo, 35-year old Swel Noury and his 30-year old brother Imad Noury, whose third feature, the visually-exuberant comedy “She’s Diabetic 3” was No. 5 film in 2012.
2013 has maintained the pattern of successful local titles, but instead of comedies, the top films have been more hard-hitting dramas.
Noureddine Lakhmari – whose 2009 urban drama, “Casanegra” was a milestone in the new Moroccan cinema – released his noir thriller “Zero” in December 2012, which like his previous pic explores Casablanca’s dark underbelly and has clocked up virtually 200,000 admissions to date.
“Every one thought that it would be really hard for the film to work.” Lakhmari explains, “Because it shows the bad side of Morocco, it uses bad language and sheds doubt on the traditional father figure – but it just confirms that Moroccans want to see other sides of society”.
The second biggest local title in 2013, addresses an even more controversial subject – Nabil Ayouch’s 2012 Cannes-player “Horses of God” about the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombers. In addition to its local success, the pic has extensively toured the international festival circuit, been sold to 40 countries and will be officially presented in the US by Jonathan Demme, where it’s the country’s candidate for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
“My films are more orientated towards the international market, with foreign funding” explains Ayouch. “So I was delighted with such a high level of local admissions. The conventions that determine which films will work locally are constantly evolving”.
Overall, Moroccan films are enjoying an increasing international presence.
Over the last 12 months, 15 local films have circulated in 45 different festivals, garnering a total of 67 prizes.
The increasing maturity and sophistication of Moroccan cinema can be explained by multiple factors.
Firstly, the country has gained significant expertise from the fact that it’s one of the world’s top foreign locations.
“An increasing number of foreign film and TV productions are lensing in Morocco every year” explains SNRT’s Faical Laraichi. “We’re opening up new doors, which gives us new ideas, creates jobs, strengthens local facilities and leads to transfer of know-how”.
Pubcasters SNRT and 2M have also pioneered ambitious production slates of TV movies and soap operas, that have groomed a new generation of talent and enabled the broadcasters to retain a joint 42% primetime share, notwithstanding competition from over 1000 Arab language satellite channels.
But undoubtedly the key driving force has been the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre (CCM), headed by Noureddine Sail, which has boosted production levels to 20-25 features and 50-80 short films per year.
The CCM has also vaunted freedom of speech and the agency’s juries have consistently provided public support to films that challenge long-established taboos and address controversial subjects.
“Today there’s no subject where Moroccans can’t express themselves” suggests Ayouch, “When I tell people that my film “Horses of God” received state support, they don’t believe me. It’s a major contrast with the situation currently prevailing in our neighbors, such as Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt”.
“Cinema is seen as a winning dossier by the government” explains Noureddine Sail. “Our films are seen in Peking, Moscow, Mexico, Chile, France, Spain, throughout the world. It’s an excellent visiting card.”
An integral part of this open outlook is also the high number of female helmers working in Morocco, with recent successes including Leila Kilani’s 2011 Cannes-player “On the Edge” and Laila Marrakchi’s 2013 Toronto-player “Rock the Casbah”.
“We’re unique in the Arab world because we have so many female directors” suggests Ayouch. “There are more and more voices emerging with new ways of telling stories and new acting styles”.
The final piece in the puzzle is the Marrakech international film festival – one of the largest annual cultural events in Africa – which has transferred knowledge and skills to local filmmakers and provides an increasingly important showcase for introducing Moroccan films to foreign guests.
One of the fruits of the 2012 edition was the fact that Jonathan Demme, attending for a career trib, got to see Ayouch’s “Horses of God”, thus paving the way to a deal being signed between the two filmmakers.
In the 2013 edition, which runs Nov 29 to Dec 7, two Moroccan films will play in Official Selection and a further four films in the Cinema at Heart sidebar.
“The best thing to happen to Moroccan cinema was the Marrakech film festival” concludes Lakhmari. “During one week, filmmakers and producers come to see our cinema. For us it’s like a window on the world.”