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Marrakech: Moroccan Cinema at a Crossroads

Dramedies dominate the local box office in 2015

Given the current geo-political climate, all eyes are focused on developments in the Arab world, whether political, military or cultural.

Historically positioned at a crossroads between North and South and East and West, Morocco is one of the most developed countries in both the Arab World and Africa, and since 2008 has maintained an “advanced status” with the European Union, paving the way to full accession to the E.U. internal market.

Since film-loving King Mohamed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, cinema has received significant support.

The Marrakech Film Festival, now celebrating its 15th edition, has served as an important showcase for world cinema and also for Morocco’s liberal outlook.

Over recent years, Morocco, whose name means the Western Kingdom, has been consistently chosen to lens blockbuster productions – recent examples including “Spectre” and “Mission Impossible 6 – Rogue Nation” – because film producers are attracted by the kingdom’s spectacular locations, overall security and film-friendly environment.

During this same period, catalyzed by the presence of major foreign shoots and a major international film festival, Moroccan cinema has evolved into one of the Arab World’s most dynamic film industries, vying with the traditional film powerhouse of Egypt.

Freedom of speech has been vaunted as one of the strengths of the Moroccan film industry, placing the country at the forefront of the Arab world in terms of artistic freedom.

At home, Moroccan films have consistently represented around half of the country’s Top Ten films at the box-office and 2015 has been no exception.

Moroccan helmers such as Nabil Ayouch, Noureddine Lakhmari, Hicham Lasri, Faouzi Bensaidi, Leila Kilani and Narjiss Nejjar, have also become regulars on the international festival circuit.

Sarim Fassi Fihri, the head of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), would like to see further progress of the domestic industry with increasing presence in A-list festivals, and cites Romania  – which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2007 – as an inspiration.

The Dubai-based international VOD platform, Icflix, set up operations in Morocco in 2013 and has inked co-production deals with several Moroccan helmers, including Lakhmari, with an eye on promoting Moroccan films throughout the Arab world.

However, to achieve these goals Moroccan films need to increase their production values, develop tighter scripts and embrace bolder approaches.

Interviewed by Variety, Icflix states that its objective is to “put Moroccan Cinema on the map” but suggests that “Moroccan movies address issues without delving boldly into them – they talk about issues but make sure they don’t offend.”

This is partly due to underlying Moroccan cultural values, which place an emphasis on mild manners and pacific co-existence.

It’s also linked to the different approaches adopted by local filmmakers.

For example, the biggest local hit in 2014 – “Behind Closed Doors” by Mohammed Ahed Bensouda – focused on the issue of sexual harassment of women in the workplace and led to a national movement to change Moroccan laws.

Bensouda believes that it’s possible to focus on such issues without creating direct confrontation. “Morocco’s neo-realist directors focus on frontal shock and provocation,” he suggests. “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.”

Some Moroccan filmmakers fear that if they become too outspoken their careers or films may be harmed.

Such concerns have been heightened since the 2011 election victory of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) that, despite its broadly moderate outlook, includes some conservative hawks.

Filmmakers in general consider that their freedom of expression remains intact, but significant concerns were raised in 2015 due to the government ban imposed on Nabil Ayouch’s prostitution drama “Much Loved,” one week after the film bowed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

The controversy soon eclipsed the merits of the film itself – indeed many of its critics only got to saw a few clips at most – and was transformed into a heated debate about the state of Moroccan culture.

The decision to impose a ban was viewed by some as a one-off incident. Some critics even considered that Ayouch’s disclosure of clips from the pic formed part of a deliberate marketing strategy, which although penalizing the film in its home territory made it the most-talked about Moroccan film internationally.

Prior to the pic’s release Ayouch disclosed his concerns about the potential reaction from the film: “The cinema we produce should be very aware of the world. 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.”

However Ayouch states that he was surprised by the virulence of the attacks against his film, including death threats via social media and a disturbing incident in early November, in which “Loved” lead actress, Loubna Abidar was assaulted by strangers in Casablanca and has since decided to emigrate to Paris.

Domestically, “Much Loved” divided public opinion since it raises important issues on where “red lines” exist in terms of freedom of expression.

Several of Ayouch’s colleagues were reluctant to speak up in defense of the film, perhaps partly due to fears of a potential negative impact on their careers but also because of doubts as to whether the film should be transformed into a cause celebre.

Several international film critics suggested that the film included too many stereotypes. For example Variety’s Jay Weissberg praised the cast’s remarkable bravery but stated that it “pushes the envelope yet says nothing new about how prostitutes, and women in general, are treated in the Kingdom.”

“Much Loved” has nonetheless won considerable festival kudos abroad. In addition to screening at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and at Toronto, the pic played at the Festival d’Angoulême in France in August, where Ayouch won Best Director and Loubna Abidar took Best Actress. Abidar also won Best Actress at the Festival du Film Francophone in Namur in September, and at the Gijon International Film Festival in November. The pic also screened in neighboring Tunisia, as part of the Carthage Int’l Film Fest, where it won the jury prize, and in the Estoril Film Fest in Lisbon, Portugal, where Ayouch received a career trib.

One of the pic’s main defenders in Morocco has been helmer Noureddine Lakhmari – himself no stranger to controversy since his 2008 local hit, “Casanegra,” which exposed the dark underbelly of Casablanca.

Lakhmari believes that Moroccan cinema is akin to Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s and 1950s which also suffered from censorship, including export bans.

He believes that the ban raises the specter of a clampdown on freedom of speech:

“All of a sudden, we feel that we’re living in the film, ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ with the priest ringing a bell when he sees a scene that he considers to be offensive to good taste.”

At the same time, Lakhmari downplays the long-term significance of the ban since he believes that this will be a temporary glitch in the country’s developing freedom of expression which will inevitably expand as Moroccan filmmakers increase their access to international festivals and distribution platforms.

Ayouch reveals that he is bowed, but not broken, and is currently prepping his next feature “Razzia”, while exploring VOD distribution possibilities for “Much Loved.”

CCM prexy Fassi Fihri refuses to be drawn into the debate and considers that, as an experienced filmmaker, Ayouch must have been aware of the impact his film was likely to generate.

The controversy engendered by “Much Loved” tended to overshadow the achievements of other Moroccan films in 2015.

Five Moroccan films rank in this year’s Top Ten, and explore important social issues, in particular the relations between different ethnic communities, but primarily through the prism of social comedy rather than neo-realism.

The country’s two biggest hits – Abdellah Toukona Ferkous’ “Le Coq” (The Cock) and Said Naciri’s “Les Transporteurs” (The Transporters) – are comedies by actor-directors, with 96,777 and 95,535 admissions, respectively.

“Le Coq” is a comedy set in Marrakech about the relationship between a local merchant, played by the pic’s helmer Ferkous, and his French neighbor who transforms his Riad into a tourism establishment.

The film focuses on culture shock between French and Moroccan cultures, while addressing themes such as corruption, petty intrigue and use of new technologies.

Pic’s success is above all due to the comic talents of its actor/director who deftly portrays the idiosyncratic behavior of a local merchant and his family.

Ferkous is a popular actor in Morocco whose recent films include “Graines de grenades” that he also directed, and Ahmed Boulane’s Morocco-Spanish military drama, “La Isla,” which is playing in Marrakech’s Cinema at Heart sidebar.

“Transporters” is a black comedy directed by and starring Said Naciri, who uses comedy to explore the plight of the underprivileged in Morocco and has consistently delivered local box office hits over recent years, including “Sara” and “A Moroccan in Paris.”

Naciri portrays Souad, who works in a cabaret where he befriends Saleh, a petty drug-dealer who is trying to raise funds for his grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

The duo become involved in a scheme to transport drugs through the port of Tangier and then suffer a series of unexpected pitfalls as the drug haul is seized by a rival drug baron.

Morocco’s third biggest local hit in 2015, with 47,872 admissions, is Mohamed Mouftakir’s sophomore pic, “L’Orchestre des aveugles” (The Blind Men’s Band), which played in the Official Selection at Marrakech 2014.

“Band” is a French-Moroccan co-production between Mouftakir’s Chama Film and Emmanuel Prévost’s Avalanche Productions in France, that produced Olivier Mégaton’s “Exit,” Luc Besson’s “Arthur,” the animation series “Valérian et Laureline” and Olivier Van Hoofstadt’s “Go Fast.”

The pic is a partly autobiographical film set in Morocco in the 1970s in the period of tight social control under the former king Hassan II, known as the “Years of Lead.”

It explores the issues of the relationship between men and women in a coming-of-age tale that also revels in bittersweet nostalgia for 1970s Morocco.

Mohamed Karrat’s sophomore outing, the comedy “Un Pari Pimenté” (A Spicy Bet), with 42,708 admissions, is a crowd-pleasing comedy about two young men who live in the European-style skiing resort Ifrane, high in the mid-Atlas mountains. It played in Marrakech’s Cinema at Heart sidebar in 2014.

Karrat studied visual effects in Paris and began working as a digital VFX supervisor. He created and directed the fantasy TV series “Boued al Akhar,” Morocco’s first major genre series, which screened on pubcaster 2M and garnered major kudos at the Cairo Film Festival.

Like several other Moroccan helmers he’s looking for a third path – between neo-realism films and traditional comedies.

“Before, we used to make either auteur films or comedies. Now, we’re developing newer and deeper relationships with the audience, in which we can talk about social issues facing Morocco, but in a way that can attract a broad audience.”

Morocco’s fifth biggest local title, with 31,980 admissions, is Jerome Cohen Olivar’s dramedy, “L’Orchestre de Minuit” (The Midnight Orchestra), set in Morocco’s Jewish community.

Cohen Olivar emigrated as a child and grew up in the U.S., returning to Morocco in the mid-2000s, where he directed his debut film, the sci-fi pic “Kandisha” that screened at Marrakech in 2008.

“Orchestra” is a much more personal film, budgeted under $1 million. A successful U.S. businessman returns to Morocco to meet his estranged father, a famous musician, who dies just after they meet.

The Jewish son then teams up with a wacky Muslim taxi driver as they set forth on a mission to meet the colorful characters of his father’s orchestra, including Casablanca’s biggest pimp, a man known as the “terrorist”, an escapee from a mental institution, and a rich beggar.

“This film is autobiographic to a large extent,” reveals Cohen Olivar. “When you talk to Jews who left Morocco, especially in the 1970s after the Yom Kippur war, many have become successful but they have lost their identity. They have been forced to build another identity.”

He states that in the 1950s there were over 250,000 Jews living in Morocco – the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world – but there are now under 2,000.

The underlying theme of the friendship between the Jewish returnee and the Muslim taxi driver is a key facet of the film, which earned it the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Montreal and was a key force of attraction for local audiences.

“The audience tends to cry and laugh at the same time,” reveals Cohen Olivar.

“Orchestra” will be screened on VOD in Morocco via Icflix and will be released in France in March.

World rights have been picked up by Santa Monica-based art house distribbery, Menemsha Films, which aims to release the pic in the U.S. in September 2016.

“We’re very excited to be working on “The Midnight Orchestra’,” says Menemsha’s Neil Friedman. “The main theme of the film is about discovering one’s cultural history and the film does this with both poetry and humor. How unique in today’s world is this friendship between two men from these two different religious and cultural backgrounds.  This film can do some healing for all of us.”

Morocco’s trademark neo-realist films have been relatively absent from local screens in 2015, especially given that the main contender this year, Ayouch’s “Much Loved,” was banned.

However, several leading Moroccan helmers working in this vein – including Ayouch, Lakhmari, Faouzi Bensaidi and Leila Kilani – are prepping early-2016 shoots that are expected to be released in the latter half of 2016 and in 2017.

The eclecticism of Moroccan cinema, and its courage to tackle difficult subjects, is expected to continue and to be progressively reinforced over time.

In this process, Moroccan helmers will have to work out which “red lines” they can or can’t cross, but the overall sentiment expressed by directors interviewed by Variety was that the desire to explore complex and divisive issues continues to run very strong.

“Morocco continues to be the most open country for filmmaking in the Arab world. More than in Egypt or Tunisia.” concludes Lakhmari. “But there’s still a long way to go. Our audiences are conservative. But if you touch their hearts they will follow you. The course of history is with us.”

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