The Marrakech film festival increasingly serves as a showcase for the latest crop of Moroccan films and via its Cinecoles short film competition also aims to nurture new talent from the country’s burgeoning network of film schools.
Last year’s edition included two of the country’s current biggest hits – Nabil Ayouch’s “Horses of God” and Noureddine Lakhmari’s “Zero” – and this year’s edition also features titles that are likely to be the strongest Moroccan films in the domestic and international market over the next 12 months.
“The Moroccan films screening in this year’s festival highlight the diversity of our cinema” suggests Noureddine Sail, prexy of the Moroccan Cinema Centre. “The genres used include social drama, comedy and action-adventure.”
Moroccan films are popular amongst domestic filmgoers, responsible for over one third of the annual box office and are also making increasing inroads into the international festival circuit and foreign markets.
An increasing number of Moroccan helmers – such as Nabil Ayouch, Noureddine Lakhmari, Faouzi Bensaidi and Laïla Marrakchi – are able to set up international coproductions which offers access to higher budgets and greater international visibility.
A prime example is Ayouch’s “Horses of God” which director Jonathan Demme is presenting in the US market, after first seeing it at Marrakech in 2012, and for which Ayouch has his hopes pinned on making the final shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
There are nonetheless still many obstacles in the way of building a Moroccan film industry that can compete with the leading traditions of world cinema.
“I think there’s a still a long way to go before we can reach the status occupied by countries such as South Korea, Japan, Argentina or Denmark,” explains French-Moroccan helmer, Hicham Ayouch, whose social drama “Fevers” is playing in Official Competition at the fest.
“I think we have to make fewer and better films. We still lack good scripts. Most directors want to write their own scripts and there’s a shortage of good screenwriters. We have to work more to reach the level of other developed countries.”
Hicham Ayouch, who grew up in Paris, sees himself as a director with an individual vision and doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed as either a French or Moroccan director.
He nonetheless believes that there’s a special energy in Morocco, which is quite distinct from the situation that exists in France or most of Europe.
“Morocco is experiencing a unique historical moment, a bit like the atmosphere that prevailed in London and Paris after the second world war, or in Spain and Portugal after the end of the Franco and Salazar dictatorships.” he suggests.
“We’re grappling with really big issues, such as freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. In Morocco, 50% of the population is illiterate. The country is evolving at a rapid pace – there are hundreds of thousands of stories that jump into your face”.
Ayouch is currently developing several new projects, but is reluctant to unveil any details until the final deals are inked. He also harbors hopes to revive the Arabic language project, “Samba” – about a Moroccan man, obsessed with a Brazilian telenovela star – that he signed with 20th Century Fox in 2009, but which he complains has been relegated to development limbo.
His brother, producer-director Nabil Ayouch, shares the opinion that Morocco is wrapped up in a unique historical moment and constitutes a hotbed of powerful stories that can appeal to an international audience.
He believes that the rupture of the old dictatorships, which used Islam to cement Arab societies together, will now give way to a more open struggle between a small privileged elite and large, relatively impoverished masses, and is currently developing a sci-fi vision of Morocco in 2060, that focuses on these tensions.
The next project from Noureddine Lakhmari, entitled “Burn Out” also focuses on the profound divide between rich and poor in Moroccan society.
Lakhmari – who lived for 18 years in Norway – believes that by focusing on these topical issues, Moroccan filmmakers can speak to a global audience. He nonetheless considers that language still constitutes a barrier.
“My generation of filmmakers spent a long time living abroad, in my case Norway. The new generation is being nurtured here at home. We’re experiencing the same kind of energy that occurred 20 years ago in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, with new ideas, more energy, and less complicated approaches. But it’s still a big hurdle to do well internationally with Arabic-language films. Filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, when they wanted to expand internationally, began working in English and with English-speaking talent.”
Lakhmari believes that there has been a sea-change in Moroccan cinema over the past 10 years, shifting away from what he considers were folkloric films designed to please French audiences and comedies spoken in a neutral Arabic language, aimed at the Egyptian market.
The “Casanegra” helmer has made all his films in Moroccan Arabic, Darija, which is the language spoken on the streets. But as a consequence he has received fierce criticism from defenders of classic Arabic and a pan-Arabic culture.
But use of Darija has now become the standard practice in Moroccan cinema, and forms an integral part of the movement towards films rooted in people’s everyday lives.
“Moroccan cinema has revolved around three key trends in recent years,” Lakhmari claims. “All films are now spoken in Darija; they show the reality of domestic violence against women, the handicapped and the weak in general; and they tell stories about overthrowing the traditional patriarchal system.”
Lakhmari views these elements as the foundation of an increasingly vibrant national cinema but nonetheless believes that Moroccan film policy needs to be reinforced in order to make greater inroads into the international market.
“There’s still a long road to go,” he suggests. “In Scandinavian countries, or countries such as South Korea, it looks like there’s a long-term strategy, based on cultivating new talent and active intervention by the national film institutes. We need a stronger umbrella platform to promote our films.”