Moroccan Cinema Continues to Challenge Taboos

Comedies, social dramas and neo-realist dramas challenge social mores

Moroccan Cinema Continues Challenge Taboos

Over the past 10 years, Moroccan cinema has emerged as one of the most successful national cinemas, especially in the context of Arab and African cinema.

In 2013, eight out of the top 10 films at the national box office were local productions, and in 2014 half of the top 10 films will once again be homegrown titles.

The hegemony of the local box office has been maintained since the mid-2000s, albeit mitigated by the fact that overall cinema admissions have been dwindling and cinemas have been closing.

Moroccan films generated 40% of total admissions in 2013, with 35% of total box office revenues.  By contrast, American films recorded 35% of admissions and 44% of revenues.

The higher revenue per ticket sold for U.S. films is explained by the fact that Hollywood pics are viewed primarily in the country’s two main multiplexes — where ticket prices are higher.

In 2014, the country’s top selling film is “Behind Closed Doors,” the sophomore outing from Mohammed Ahed Bensouda, who previously worked as assistant director for Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Claude Lelouch and Giuseppe Tornatore.

“Closed Doors” had its world premiere at last year’s Marrakech film festival, where it was so popular that two extra screening sessions were organized.

The pic focuses on a major cultural taboo — sexual harassment at work — and demonstrates the social and legal hurdles faced by a young female executive, Samira (Zineb Obeid), as she weaves her way through a legal labyrinth in an attempt to find justice.

According to the director, Bensouda, 140,000 spectators had seen the film by the end of November, 75% of whom were women.

The film led to a national movement to change Moroccan law about sexual harassment.

Bensouda chose this topic since he believes that while Moroccan women have conquered new rights in the workplace, they have suffered a retrocession in terms of their overall rights, due to harassment.

“When we talk about women in Arab society it’s always a taboo subject,” he says. “This is partly due to religion, and also because in Arab societies men and women don’t easily socialize.”

“As women have entered the workplace, suddenly men and women find themselves in close proximity with each other — which in our culture can easily foster situations of sexual harassment. This is a widespread problem. It’s become normalized in Morocco. It has become so common that people no longer talk about it. But it’s not normal.”

The year’s second top-selling film is the comedy road-movie “Road to Kabul,” by Brahim Chkiri, with 90,000 spectators this year.

“Kabul” is one of the Morocco’s top-selling recent films with over 200,000 tickets sold since it originally bowed in 2012.

Another top-selling comedy of the year is “Sara,” directed by, and starring, Said Naciri, who directed previous local comedy hits “A Moroccan in Paris” (2012) and “The Bandits” (2003).

“Sara” was released in 2013 and has clocked up a total of over 85,000 admissions.

One of the hallmarks of new Moroccan cinema is that in addition to popular comedies, it has regularly produced films that use a stark neo-realism approach to address pressing social issues.

Directors working in this vein include Morocco’s best-known international director Nabil Ayouch, whose most recent film “Horses of God,” about the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombers, was sold to 40 countries and officially presented in the U.S. by Jonathan Demme, where it was Morocco’s candidate for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

The pic was Morocco’s second most popular film in 2013 with 97,000 admissions.

Noureddine Lakhmari is another key helmer, following the major success of his 2009 urban drama “Casanegra.”

Lakhmari’s most recent film, “Zero,” about Casablanca’s dark underbelly, with undertones of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” was the top selling film in 2013 and clocked up virtually 200,000 admissions.

Bensouda, who is also preparing a book about the History of Moroccan Cinema, identifies two main trends in contemporary Moroccan cinema — traditional comedies, such as “Sara,” and neo-realist films by directors such as Ayouch and Lakhmari.

He sees his own film, “Behind Closed Doors” as charting a third path, closer to modern American cinema.

“Neo-realism has three main characteristics,” he suggests. “Strong social subjects, location shooting in realistic decors and frequent use of non-professional actors.”

“Due to economic imperatives, most of Moroccan cinema has to work in realistic decors often with non-professional actors and this naturally lends itself to neo-realism, with films that focus on social issues and explore themes of severe hardship.”

But regardless of the style adopted — whether comedy, neo-realism or social drama — the majority of Moroccan films explore the complex tensions generated by the country’s modernization.

Cinema is viewed by many Moroccans as a key forum for freedom of expression and discussion of ideas.

This is particularly important given the turbulent questioning that currently prevails in many Arab countries.

Moroccan films have been championed by certain sectors of national society, especially young people, but have also been subject to vehement criticism from other quarters, in particular conservative political circles.

The main buffer to this criticism has been the open support provided to Moroccan filmmakers by the king Mohammed VI.

In October 2012, the king wrote a royal letter to the Assises nationales du cinéma — a national meeting of politicians, film agencies and filmmakers — in which he placed cinema at the heart of the country’s cultural agenda: “We have always taken a special interest in the question of cinema,” he stated. “Our film production must accompany the changes and achievements taking place in our country.”

The king also underlined the importance of protecting filmmakers’ independent vision, stating the objective to “guarantee freedom of creation, ensuring the well-being of the creators.”

“The royal letter was absolutely critical,” suggests Lakhmari. “It was a clear signal that nobody should touch the independence of our film authors.”

Lakhmari senses a strong esprit du corps with the other directors of his generation such as Nabil Ayouch, Faouzi Bensaidi, Narjiss Nejjar and Leila Kilani.

“It’s like Italian neo-realism. Directors like De Sica and Visconti. We don’t think about what society will think about us. We don’t care any more. When we started making our films we used a soft touch to address certain issues — we don’t do that any more.”

In 2014, the government launched a competition to select a new director of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), following the retirement of Nour-Eddine Sail — who many saw as the architect of the new Moroccan cinema.

This led to fears that there might be a clampdown on freedom of expression, but these fears soon dissipated with the appointment of former producer Sarim Fassi Fihri in October.

“When the competition for a new director of the CCM was announced everyone was scared that the same thing was going to happen to the CCM that has happened to Moroccan TV, where there’s no longer any originality or creativity any more,” Lakhmari says.

“But the new director is moderate and progressive. He comes from production, has an extensive CV, has worked with foreigners and will defend the new cinema.”

“In Moroccan cinema we’ve conquered a tremendous level of freedom of expression and spectators are looking for films that express this spirit,” suggests Fassi Fihri. “That’s the strength of our cinema. The huge variety of our films.”

Films currently in the pipeline confirm this tendency, with many projects highlighting strong female roles.

Nabil Ayouch’s next film, “Expired,” will focus on the issue of prostitution in Morocco, a widespread phenomenon.

It ends with a clear call to action — to change the social mores and legal framework for prostitution in Morocco.

“The cinema we produce should be very aware of the world,” says Ayouch. “If you’re worried about social reaction, you never know where the red lines are. I want to fight and talk about the topics that I feel are important.”

Lakhmari’s next project “Burn Out” will also address Morocco’s tough social climate. One of the main characters is a female student who works as a prostitute at night to make ends meet.

“Moroccan society is changing — there’s no way to go back,” says Lakhmari. “The films we make are criticized by conservatives as being false. They say that our films bring western values and claim that such characters don’t exist in Morocco. But the truth is that they hate to see themselves in the mirror.”

Bensouda prefers a more moderate approach: “Morocco’s neo-realist directors focus on frontal shock and provocation. I prefer to show modern realities but in such a way that can attract a family audience. It’s all a question of choice of different styles.”

With such eclectic approaches and a society that is rapidly changing, Moroccan cinema is likely to continue to top its local box office and generate surprising films.

But new CCM topper Fassi Fihri is by no means complacent. “We must find a solution to increase the quality of our films, some are excellent but others are weak. We’re now attending over 80 festivals in all parts of the world, but we’re not yet in Official Selection at Cannes, Berlin or Venice. I like to use the example of Romanian cinema. They have a similar sized economy. And in 2007 they won the Palme d’Or.”