Moroccan cinephile grows local film biz

Sail got start by forming movie club in his garage

Ever since he took the reins at the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM) in 2003, film and TV exec Noureddine Sail has played a pivotal role in building Morocco’s film industry.

Under his stewardship, domestic production has tripled and local films have captured a 20% share of the national box office — while also raising their profile at A-list film festivals.

Born in 1948, in Tangier, Sail grew up in a multicultural environment. An ardent filmgoer and street soccer player as a child, he excelled in school and got his doctorate from the U. of Rabat at 21.

While working as a philosophy teacher in the late ’60s, he launched a film club in his garage that grew to 80,000 members nationwide.

By 1970, he was editing Cinema3 magazine, which campaigned for a stronger Moroccan film industry. “We fought for the images and sounds of Morocco by local filmmakers who tried to project national identity through their own eyes,” Sail says.

He also wrote film criticism and penned several scripts, before being appointed programming director at Morocco pubcaster TVM in 1984.

Five years later, he moved to Paris to join the international channel division of French pay TV giant, Canal Plus. “We were launching channels in Spain, Belgium, Germany and Africa,” he recalls.

Subsequently, he was program buyer and director of Canal Plus Horizons, which broadcasts to Africa.

In 2000, Sail returned to Morocco as director of ailing pubcaster 2M and helped turn it around through extensive recapitalization, greater reliance on inhouse programming, and an ambitious slate of 70 TV movies.

“Before I arrived at 2M, they’d produced only one TV movie,” Sail says. “We helped launch a new generation of talent in Morocco.”

In 2003, he was appointed director-general of CCM, where his biggest contribution has been to boost funding for Moroccan films, increase the number of pics produced, and establish clearer rules on funding eligibility, says local producer Nabil Ayouch.

Indeed, film production has mushroomed, rising from seven features and 10 shorts in 2003 to 25 features and 80 shorts in 2011.

Inspired by emerging national cine-mas in countries such as South Korea, Sail has provided strong support for filmmakers willing to tackle taboo subjects, including religious conflict, underground subcultures and the changing status of Moroccan women.

While this has brought criticism from conservative quarters, Sail shrugs off the complaints as part of living in an open society; he’s skeptical that the Islamist party’s victory in the Nov. 25 parliamentary elections will lead to a major shift in national film policy.

Sail’s immediate priorities include an ambitious program to build multiplexes, with 45 new screens planned over the next 18 months. As co-VP of the Marrakech Film Festival, he also plans to launch a co-production forum.

“Moroccan cinema has great talent, technical expertise, creative diversity and growing production experience,” he says. “I’m here to defend those values.”