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Moroccan fest blesses ‘Child’

Young helmers shakeup Tangier Film Fest

Yasmine Kassari’s complex Moroccan rural tale “The Sleeping Child” won best pic at the eighth Tangier National Film Festival, which marked a watershed for Morocco, confirming the emergence of a nouvelle vague of young, cosmopolitan Moroccan helmers and forefronting the lure of issue films for cultured Moroccans.

Fest also suggested that, when the winds of change blow through a national cinema, they can ruffle more than a few feathers.

“Child’s” Rachida Brakni took the actress prize; Mohammed Majd drew the actor nod for his perf in Ismael Ferroukhi’s “Le Grand voyage.”

The Tangier meet is a biannual competitive showcase for recent Moroccan fiction features and shorts. That would be a tall order in many Arab countries, which turn out only a clutch of features at best each year. Morocco produced 12 movies in 2004, however. Fest also showcased the 40 shorts made over the past two years, a remarkable number.

Running Dec. 2-10, fest proved exhilarating if sometimes divisive.

Standouts in this year’s lineup all receiving an upbeat reaction at Tangier, included titles that have critics and cineastes talking up a Morocco new wave: “Child,” Ferroukhi’s “Voyage,” Leila Marrakchi’s “Marock” and Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s “The Look.”

All the directors are under 45. Their pics are contempo issue films, reflecting the modernization of Morocco. While born in Morocco, their directors have studied and often live abroad: Lakhmari in Norway, Kassari in Belgium.

Quality art films rather than local potboilers, they can look to limited arthouse releases abroad. Both “Child” and “Marock” will see theatrical release in France, for instance.

But the new wave pics faced a sometimes rocky ride from local critics and older Moroccan filmmakers at the Tangier fest.

A look at young rich kids in Casablanca, “Marok” was accused, along with other pics by foreign-based filmmakers, of not being Moroccan. Its rightful place was at international fests, not a Moroccan national showcase, said one naysayer. The assertion drew an impassioned defense of freedom of speech from CCM Moroccan Film Institute director general Nour-Eddine Sail.

Ultimately, the international jury spread prizes across age groups.

Born in 1946, Jilali Ferhati won the special jury prize for the drama “Memoire en detention,” set against the background of Hassan II’s political repression, while 48-year-old Mohammed Asli took best first pic and screenplay for “In Casablanca, Angels Don’t Fly,” a droll but telling look at three Casablanca cafe workers that played in the Cannes Critics Week last year, marking Asli as a talent to track.

Faceoffs over definitions of what constitutes a Moroccan film, reminiscent of Basque or Catalan filmmaking in the ’70s, were just one sign of a cinema and country in transition.

They also mask an economic reality. Averaging some E200,000-E360,000 ($236,000-$425,000) a pic, Moroccan advance subsidies are no longer chicken feed. But its subsidy fund is finite, running at some $3.5 million-$4 million. With a welter of new directors making films, there will be heated competition for national aid. With one foot abroad, Morocco’s younger directors are far better placed to twin national aid with foreign funding.

Competish screenings were packed at Tangier’s elegant, if cramped Cinema Roxy. They proved fervent affairs.

One dialogue or scene sometimes drew thunderous applause from a generally young audience that latched on easily to pics’ wider political resonance.

One of the most passionately applauded films, for example, was “La Symphonie marocain,” which follows a bunch of no-hoper low-life musicians as they compose and finally perform a symphony. Pic went out of its way to score political points, including flashbacks of one formerly pro-Palestinian composer’s armed combat against Israeli soldiers. The killing on both sides, he concludes, was senseless slaughter. “Symphonie” received the thumbs up from local critics.

Morocco’s liberalization has limits, however. One is body exposure. Kassari was hauled over the coals at her press conference for one scene in “Child” where two young Moroccan village women bathe naked in their local river.

Though it contained no onscreen nudity, the sequence was attacked as ignoring Moroccan sensibilities and also as being inaccurate.

Kassari’s defense was that she had grown up in a village like the one in the film: the bathing was common practice, and the river a metaphor for social freedom.

One shadow extending over the ebullient festival is plunging box office receipts in Morocco. According to distributor Najib Benkiran at Casablanca Film, B.O. has fallen by up to 88% at some smaller cinemas in the country. Principal causes, he said, were DVD bootlegging and online piracy and the large number of Arab films shown on satellite TV, which has a high penetration in Morocco.

One roundtable at the fest debated the obligation of Morocco’s two state-backed broadcasters, RTM and 2M, to co-finance 20 and 10 features, respectively, beginning next year. The measure is likely to power Moroccan production levels and also raise film budgets.

Official competition awards:

“The Sleeping Child,” (Yasmine Kassari)

“Memoire en detention,” (Jilali Ferhati)

“In Casablanca, Angels Don’t Fly,” (Mohammed Asli)

“In Casablanca, Angels Don’t Fly,” (Mohammed Asli)

Rachida Brakni (“The Sleeping Child”)

Mohammed Majd (“Le Grand Voyage”)

Salima Benmoumen (“Juanita de Tangier”)

Abdou Mesnaoui (“Testament”)

Thierry Lebigre (“Tarfaya”)

Henri Morelle (“The Sleeping Child”)

Tina Baz (“Le Grand Voyage”)

Mohammed Guerrab (“Tarfaya”)

“Week End” (Rachid Hamman), “La Danse du foetus” (Mohammed Mouftakir)

“La Danse du foetus” (Mohammed Mouftakir)

“Histoire de bonnes femmes” (Hamid Faridi), “Casa by Love” (Amine Bennis)

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