Morocco jumpstarts genre pix

30 low-budget films planned over next 15 months

CASABLANCA, Morocco — For several years, the North African film scene has been pretty quiet. Morocco, which has several award-winning helmers and has provided locations for big pics like “Alexander,” has been the most influential of the region’s territories.

Morocco looks ready to solidify that lead with a new institutive to make 30 low-budget films over the next 15 months.

Morocco produces eight to 10 state-backed pics a year, and local directors Nabil Ayouch, Faouzi Bensaidi, Hassan Benjelloun and Ismail Ferroukhi have drawn attention on the fest scene. Some local pics, like Hakim Noury’s “She’s Diabetic, Hyper-Tense and Refuses to Die,” top Moroccan B.O.

Now helmer Ayouch (“Ali Zaoua”) is teaming with pubcaster RTM, under prexy Faical Laraichi, to launch a diverse slate of genre films.

The Arabic- or Berber-lingo, $120,000 titles include Morocco’s first martial arts pics, chillers, musicals and historical epics, plus cop thrillers, actioners, laffers and social dramas.

Original music will include Moroccan rap. Pics’ directors are little-known: Brahim Chkiri, who’ll oversee three first-timers — short filmmaker Yassine Fennane, commercials director Hicham Lasri and TF1 journo Hicham Ayouch. Shoots last 12-15 days.

Tapping coin from the Communications Ministry, RTM is putting up 65% of budgets, video-to-35mm transfer and marketing support. Ayouch’s Ali n’ Prods. and Belgian investors complete financing.

About a quarter of the films will go theatrical, says Ayouch; the rest to DVD and TV. Three Chkiri-directed titles are in post: cop drama “Le magistrat,” about a judge’s kidnapping; a farce, “Wesh,” where a man traps his hand in a drain grid; and a chiller “Tiwerga,” which melds a “Ring”-like ghoul with Moroccan genie traditions.

The project’s size is groundbreaking for the region, which struggles to produce a handful of films a year. Tunisia, battered by piracy and satellite TV, manages three to four films a year. Exhausted by a civil war, Algeria fares no better.

Ayouch’s slate might not make much headway with the festival crowd, which prized his earlier pics.

But, says Ayouch, “We can’t build a people’s identity only with arthouse films. We aim to reach mass audiences,” above all Morocco’s youth.

Tapping young demos presents a challenge worldwide. In Morocco, it takes on added urgency and a vaster scale, as 50% of the population is under 20.

The unemployment rate is high, and there’s a danger of a huge wedge being driven between Morocco’s educated upper classes and its disaffected youth, feeding Islamic fundamentalism.

Young Moroccans are hungry for entertainment, for which they mostly look abroad.

“Walk in Morocco’s streets and you’ll hear children singing songs from Bollywood musicals. That’s sad,” says Ayouch.

For Laraichi, “If we don’t know what young, poor urban Moroccans are doing, dreaming, thinking, 10 years from now we’ll be completely divorced from their culture.”

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