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Tangier taps arty roots

Cinematheque aims to become influential exhib in region

TANGIER, Morocco — Overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, within eyeshot of Spain, Tangier has a colorful and licentious past. Bohemian writers William Burroughs and Paul Bowles made it their home, and it’s said that heiress Barbara Hutton had ancient alleys widened to accommodate her Rolls.

Now the groundbreaking Tangier Cinematheque, a renovation of the ’30s Cinema Rif, hopes to give Tangier an equally artistic future. Opening May 29, it aims to become an influential arthouse for North Africa — and a flagship project for Morocco’s derelict exhibition sector.

Designed by France’s Jean-Marc Lalo, the renovations include two screening rooms — with 380 and 60 seats — Dolby SRD Sound, DVD and DV projections, a reading room and a video library. A cafe with broadband will look out on Tangier’s main Grand Socco square, a quaint circle of whitewashed mom-and-pop shops. The cinema’s projectors can also turn outward to provide open-air screenings for 4,000 people.

“The Cinematheque sets out to be a first-class movie theater for quality independent cinema and a greenhouse for talent,” says New York writer-actor Sean Gullette, who founded the 212 Society to raise money for projects in Morocco, including the cinema.

The Cinematheque will organize workshops and commission filmmakers to work locally, using its editing suite, says programmer Yto Barrada. “We’re filling a gap,” she adds.

For Morocco’s exhibition sector, that’s some understatement. “The bane of Moroccan cinema is exhibition,” says Moroccan film institute director general Nour-eddine Sail.

Screen count has plunged to 105, many in poor condition. Tickets average $1.60, or even less for Bollywood pics, which had a 36% market share last year. DVD bootlegging has whammied attendance in 2005, reports Mohammed Layadi, owner of Marrakech’s Cine Colisee.

But 50% of Moroccans are under 25. Cultural events such as Tangier’s annual Tanjazz fest play to capacity crowds. Morocco’s first multiplex, Casablanca’s spanking Megarama 14-plex, built on a trendy seaside strip between two McDonalds, repped 26% of total B.O. in 2004. Next year, a seven-plex will bow in Marrakech, and a four- to six-screener in Agadir. The government is pushing multiplex creation, says Sail. That’s important when one crux remains snagging land permits from regional authorities.

Exhibitors hope for lighter taxation. “The best way into Morocco would be hand-in-hand with blue-chip mall constructors,” says Pablo Nogueroles, business development director at Spain’s Yelmo Cineplex.

After first-phase construction, further multiplexing may depend on curtailing piracy, and, as so much in Morocco, on economic improvement.

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