Books and docu projects exploring national cinemas are increasingly popular: Exhibits A: Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about American and Italian cinema.
French helmer Bertrand Tavernier is also currently developing a documentary project entitled “Journey Into the Heart of French Cinema,” which focuses on the period from the late 1930s until the early 1970s.
Moroccan helmer Mohamed Ahed Bensouda, who directed the country’s biggest hit in 2014, “Behind Closed Doors,” about sexual harassment, is currently developing a book about the history of Moroccan cinema, which he also admits to expanding into a documentary.
Paris-based Bensouda has extensive experience as an a.d. on international shoots in Morocco, including Tornatore’s “Malena,” starring Monica Bellucci; Claude Lelouch’s “And Now… Ladies and Gentlemen,” with Jeremy Irons; and Roger Young’s TV series “The Bible.” He worked as a casting director on Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.”
Conducting extensive research into Moroccan films, he divides its cinema into three main periods: birth of independent cinema in the 1940s and 1950s after the end of the French protectorates; Revolutionary cinema in the 1970s and 1980s under the repressive regime of the “Years of Lead”; and the New Generation from the early 2000s onwards.
Two evident trends within recent Moroccan cinema are popular comedies and neo-realism. However, Bensouda positions his own style of filmmaking on a third path, based on classic narratives and mainstream themes but avoiding shock or provocation.
“I try to explore a different film style with a stronger link to American filmmaking techniques,” he suggests. “In ‘Behind Closed Doors’ I used a restrained approach. The key challenge was to address the topic of sexual harassment without using the sexual theme to attract viewers interested in voyeuristic thrills; 75% of my viewers were women, and my film was tailored to the whole family.”
Bensouda’s debut film, “Moussem Lamchaoucha,” was a 19th century period drama shot in a mosque, with 5,000 extras, which he describes as “peplum.”
For “Doors,” he shifted to a contemporary tale about Moroccan women: He believes that the way that women are portrayed in Moroccan cinema has changed dramatically and wanted to address a current reality, in which women have entered the workplace but now face widespread harassment.
“I could have showed harassment on the streets,” he says. “But I wanted to go further. I wanted to show harassment at other levels of society -– in the workplace. To show a side of Morocco that we’re not used to seeing.”
“Western viewers have a cliched view of Morocco, either based on souks, camels and the desert on the one hand, or slums, poverty and social problems on the other. I wanted to show modern Morocco, a portrait of the country in 2013-14, with modern decors, clean streets and attractive settings.”
One of Bensouda’s prime goals in “Doors” was to create a social movement to change the country’s laws. He was inspired by a new French law, introduced in July 2013, that enables women to file a complaint in cases of harassment. “Doors” led to a campaign for similar legislation in Morocco, where Bensouda said there was an absence of legal protection.
In 2015 he plans to commence his third feature but doesn’t want to disclose details at present. He does reveal that it will be about another key social issue.
Bensouda believes that his approach is very different from some of Morocco’s neo-realist directors. “My audience is very different from films directed by Nabil Ayouch, Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, Narjiss Nejjar and Laila Marrakchi for a simple reason: They focus on frontal shock and provocation. In the case of Lakhmari’s “Casanegra,” for example, this included use of the local dialect and swearing that people weren’t used to. There was also a scene of masturbation. But the core audience was young men in their late teens and early 20s,very different from my audience. In the “cinema of provocation” if the script includes references to nudity or masturbation, etc., they will be shown on screen.”
Bensouda hopes that his history of Moroccan cinema will capture the different filmmaking styles that have been pursued over the past decades, without trying to suggest that any one style is better than any other. Above all, he wants to highlight the diversity of Moroccan cinema, which he considers its greatest strength. He plans to publish his book in 2015.