Mimosas Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

National movies score at fests, less at local theaters

Since film-loving King Mohamed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, Moroccan cinema has received significant state support – enabling the country to spawn one of the most dynamic national film industries in the Arab world, with significant international festival presence and a regular number of domestic hits.

However, in 2016, against the backdrop of a sliding box-office, the national film industry has clocked up fewer local successes than in recent years.

Admissions until September, 2016, at 982,648 tickets sold, are 28% lower than the same period in 2015, and considering the third quarter alone, entries have virtually halved between 2015 and 2016. The admissions slide has been driven in part by continued closure of the few remaining cinemas in Morocco, and also by a lower number of popular local films that have attracted audiences to local screens.

This year’s biggest local hit, with 105,764 admissions, is a local black comedy about the film business, “Dallas” by Mohamed Ali El Majboud. In the film, the director decides to make a movie to avoid bankruptcy, but his main actor dies of a heart attack during the shoot and he is obliged to complete the film with the man’s dead body.

The only other Moroccan film in the country’s top ten is Aziz El Jahidi’s “Chambra 13,” a dramedy about rebellious female inmates in a Moroccan prison, which clocked up 26,045 admissions.

The third biggest local film – ranking No. 13 at the national box office, with 17,332 admissions – is Saïd Khallaf’s “A Mile in My Shoes,” which won the Grand Prix in the Tangier National Film Festival and is Morocco’s official entry for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Mile” is a tense social drama about a marginalized and impoverished young boy living in Casablanca who decides to take revenge on the dog-eat-dog world around him.

Placing 14th place at the national box office, with 16,331 admissions, is Algerian-Moroccan road-movie, “La vache,” by Algerian director, Mohamed Hamidi.  Starring Lambert Wilson, the pic is about an Algerian farmer who travels with his prize cow, Jacqueline, to the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris.

Ahmed Boulane’s comedy “La isla de perejil”, about a diplomatic dispute between Morocco and Spain, which screened in Marrakech in 2015, was the only other Moroccan film to make the top 30.

The success of local films in 2016 is significantly below that recorded in 2015, which saw five local films in the top ten, including the country’s two biggest hits – Abdellah Toukona Ferkous’ “Le Coq” (The Cock) and Said Naciri’s “Les Transporteurs” (The Transporters).

Reasons for underperformance in 2016 included the fact that many leading Moroccan helmers – such as Nabil Ayouch, Noureddine Lakhmari, Hicham Lasri, Faouzi Bensaidi, Leila Kilani and Narjiss Nejjar – will only have their films released in 2017 – which is expected to be a much stronger year for Moroccan cinema.

Nonetheless, Moroccan cinema fared considerably better on the festival circuit in 2016.

Hicham Lasri followed up from his black-and-white tragi-comedy, “The Sea is Behind” – which world preemed in Berlin in 2015 – with “Starve your Dog,” which had its world premiere in Toronto in 2015 and screened in Berlin in 2016.

Lasri is one of the country’s most distinctive helmers, in terms of both his visual style and experimental storytelling technique.

“Sea” takes its name from a battle cry by Moorish leader Tarik Ibn Ziad at the time of the conquest of Andalusia in Spain during the Crusades, which is cited in the film. The stark, high-contrast, black-and-white film follows the bittersweet adventures of transvestite Tarik.

Lasri has stated that his objective with “Sea” was to show how Moroccan society is moving from tolerance to intolerance, for example a man dressing as a woman in the context of certain marriage traditions was relatively commonplace in the country around 15 years ago, but is now viewed by some as aberrant.

Lasri’s “Starve your Dog” is an experimental film-essay style, whose freeform montage is reminiscent of the French nouvelle vague. Like his previous outings, the film includes biting social criticism, including a simulated interview with Driss Basri (Jirari Ben Aissa), former Interior Minister, during the “Years of Lead” under King Hassan II, who mockingly refers to himself as the “Monster of the Interior.” The true-life minister died in exile in Paris in 2007, but in “Dog” he is still alive and emerges from house arrest, as a specter of the old regime, returning to the present.

Another major festival success in 2016 was “Mimosas” – a co-production between Spain, Morocco, France and Qatar, by Moroccan-based Spanish director, Oliver Laxe. The minimalist travelogue and crypto-Western, which is named after a Tangier café where false touristic guides procure lost souls, won the Grand Prize at Cannes Critics’ Week in 2016. The pic is divided into three sections named after different elements of Islamic prayer.

“Mimosas,” was entirely lensed in Moroccan and co-produced by Lamia Chraibi, who also produced Hicham Lasri’s recent productions. Another festival success is Mohamed Chrif Tribak’s sophomore outing, “Petits Bonheurs” (2015), which follows on from his 2009 debut pic, “The Time of Comrades,” which won an award at San Sebastian’s Cinema in Motion sidebar. “Bonheurs” won best screenplay and a Cine-Club Award at the 2016 Tangier National Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Tetouan Mediterranean International Film Festival.

The pic is set in Tetouan in the 1950s, and recounts the relationship between two 17 year-old girls, Noufissa and Fattouma who promise to share everything and never leave each other, but their friendship is jeopardized when Fattouma discovers that Noufissa is to be married.

Both “Sea” and “Bonheurs,” together with other recent Moroccan pics, were presented in a two-hour pitching panel to sales agents and distributors at last year’s Marrakech film festival, as a first step towards building a market at the event.

This year’s Marrakech fest only includes two Moroccan films in its line-up – “Majid” and “My Uncle” – both of which are directed by Nassim Abassi and star Abderrahim Tounsi (aka “Abderraouf”), who will receive a career trib.

“My Uncle” is based on a Moroccan Chaplin-style character, created by actor Tounsi, who was hugely popular in the 1970s and the early 1980s but subsequently slid into comparative oblivion.

Tounsi is the uncle of a young struggling actress in Morocco (Alia Erkab) and the film offers a behind-the-scenes view of her attempts to break into the Moroccan film industry, and aims to show some of its darker sides.

One of the hallmark characteristics of Moroccan films is the willingness of local helmers to challenge taboos, focusing on key issues facing Moroccan society, including the gulf between rich and poor, sexual harassment and terrorism.

This has underpinned the success of local films, but has also engendered criticism from conservative quarters.

As in many Arab countries, the movements unleashed by the Arab Spring, in early 2011, have polarized public opinion.

In Morocco major constitutional reforms were introduced in 2011, which were followed by the election victory of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) that, despite its broadly moderate outlook, has included some conservative hawks.

A new general election was held on October 7, 2016, and the PJD reinforced its vote and seats, and is currently forming the new coalition government under reappointed prime-minister, Abdelillah Benkirane.

The main government intervention in relation to film and television has been conducted via the Minister of Communication, Mustapha El Khalfi.

Conservative hawks linked to the ruling party have flaunted the idea of cultivating “art proper,” or “clean art,” in Moroccan film and television, and critics have accused these voices of attempting to undermine local freedom of expression. For example, in a recent board meeting of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi, president of the National Producers Guild (CNPF) stated that the country is witnessing “degradation of fiction production, especially in terms of television.”

The most visible side of a crackdown on local films was the 2015 ban on Nabil Ayouch’s prostitution drama “Much Loved,” one week after the film bowed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, which Ayouch says took him by surprise and altered his view of the country but didn’t dampen his desire to make his voice heard.

His next film, “Razzia,” which is currently in production is an entirely foreign production, because Ayouch was unable to raise funds from either the CMM or local television.

“Razzia” makes direct reference to the 1942 classic “Casablanca,” which serves as the backdrop to the film. “In both films, people are fighting against an ideology,” says Ayouch. “They’re fighting against the Nazis in Casablanca´ and in my film they are also trying to resist. The analogy is very clear.”

Most Moroccan filmmakers interviewed by Variety consider that there are challenges on the horizon but freedom of expression remains intact in the country. There is nonetheless increased awareness of the existence of certain “red lines,” which were not apparent before.

Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, who is currently completing “Burnout” the final part in the trilogy formed by “Casanegra” (2009) and “Zero” (2012), comments: “Unfortunately, there has been pressure on directors over the last two years to produce ‘clean art’ which has led to films and series that try to be visually appealing and show happy families, but they’re not popular with the audience. I think we will see more distinctive films in 2017 that will attract major local popularity. The more they make problems they create for us, the more we will fight.”

Lakhmari has received considerable criticism from more conservative quarters who have even accused him of being a Zionist. But he says that he takes comfort from the fact that the king supports cinema, including the fact that he received a medal of honor from the king after completing “Zero.”

In terms of foreign productions lensed in Morocco, the kingdom continues to be widely sought after. Foreign productions lensed in 2015 included Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Michael Bay’s “The Tempest,” Alexandre Moors’ “The Yellow Bird,” and TV series, “A.D.,” “Galavant,” and “Odyssey.”

In 2016, the number of foreign shoots has been further consolidated in particular as a result of an increasing number of TV series.

Key recent titles include Brad Anderson’s “Beirut,” Per Fly Plejdrup’s “Backstabbing For Beginners,” Jason Hall’s “Thank You for Your Services,” the trailers for “The Mummy” and “Allied,” and the TV series “Prison Break” (season 5), “The Missing” (season 2, two episodes), “Viking” (season 5), and “Homeland” (season 6).

In late 2015, the Moroccan government unveiled a new tax break regime for foreign productions, for which legislation has been prepared but not yet enacted.

New legislation for the Moroccan Cinema Center has also been prepared – the existing law dates from 1977 – which CCM prexy Sarim Fahri Fissi expects to be enacted by the new government that is currently being formed.

The new legislation will give the CCM greater remit over television and new media, inspired by the model of national funding agencies such as France’s CNC.

With new legislation in the pipeline, films by leading local helmers being finalized for early 2017 and continued demand from foreign producers, local producers and directors hope to reverse the decline recorded in 2016 and set Moroccan cinema back on track in the coming year.

The shortage of screens is nonetheless likely to pose a continuing barrier to this goal and this is also one of the CCM’s main targets for 2017, having launched funding to refurbish four national screens this year – the Colisée in Marrakech, the Eden Club A and B in Casablanca, and El Kifah in Rabat.

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