MARRAKECH, Morocco — Icflix, the Dubai-based VOD platform founded by chairman Fadi Mehio and CEO Carlos Tibi in 2012, is finalizing its first Moroccan production – Noureddine Lakhmari’s “Burn Out”, the final part in a movie trilogy formed by “Casanegra” and “Zero.”
A two-minute trailer was screened during the Marrakech Film Festival, as icflix’s CCO, Amine Lalami outlined to Variety the platform’s further plans for Morocco and the Middle East-North Africa.
Icflix vies neck and neck with Starz as the leading VOD platform in the 370 million MENA market, that has a young and highly-wired demographic and is reinforcing its commitment to co-producing original content to secure its market share. In Morocco, Icflix has an exclusive strategic partnership with Maroc Telecom, and operates as its video-on-demand arm. The latter has launched a major TV and outdoor advertising campaign. Lalami said that subscriber growth in Morocco has been very buoyant in 2016.
Icflix provides a mixture of Arabic-language content and films and TV shows from the U.S. and Europe. It is available across the MENA market and also in Arab diaspora communities throughout the world, including in Latin America, North America and Europe.
Lalami explains that unlike VOD platforms such as Netflix, where documentaries and series are key attractions for viewers, icflix viewers place special importance on feature films, which has led the platform to focus on investing in feature films shot in Arabic but which have Hollywood-style production standards.
“A show like ‘House of Cards’ is excellent,” says Lalami. “It played a key role in establishing Netflix in the market, but I don’t believe this kind of drama is relevant for our market. Our viewers are more attracted by feature films.”
Given Morocco’s long tradition as one of Hollywood’s favorite foreign filming locations, icflix aims to concentrate its production activities in the kingdom, even when the films are intended for other markets, such as Tunisia, Egypt or the Middle East. Lalami believes that Morocco has excellent locations which can serve stories set in many other parts of the MENA region; he also praises the quality of local studios and technicians.
Icflix’s recent productions include 2015 Tunisian film, “Borders of Heaven,” the debut pic from Fares Naanaa, which won best actor at Dubai. When released it was recognized as one of the few Tunisian titles capable of overcoming the region’s arthouse blind spot.
“Our involvement in ‘Borders of Heaven’ was a very successful experience,” says Lalami. “Now we want to increase our involvement with Tunisian filmmakers.”
The latest Tunisian production supported by icflix is “Woh !” from female director Ismahane Lahmar, produced by her production company, Hit Production, and distributed by Lassad Goubantini.
The film is financed without any state subsidies and is produced by icflix and Tunisia Telecom – which organized a crowdfunding campaign featuring famous Tunisian director and actors, that led to private donations from local Tunisians.
Given that there are many different Arabic dialects and accents across the region, icflix would like to make the Arabic used in their films as understandable as possible for the entire Arab world.
However this goal doesn’t always coincide with the objectives of local filmmakers. For example, helmer Noureddine Lakhmari is proud to use the local Moroccan dialect – Darija – and says that although his films can subsequently be dubbed into Arabic, he wants the language used in his films to be as close as possible to the language spoken by local citizens.
For “Burnout,” icflix is working on dubbing the film and also subtitling it in classic Arabic.
Alami explained he was delighted with the film and hopes that it may be selected for official competition in Berlin.
“I think this film will change the perception of Moroccan movies. It uses state of art technology. It has the best actors in Morocco. It shows the country in a very glamorous light, with wonderful night shots. It shows Casablanca at its best. Whoever watches it will fall in love with Casablanca and Morocco.
Alami plans to promote the film heavily on the icflix platform when it is released in the first half of 2017, including digital marketing and outdoor ads. An avant-premiere screening is planned in January
“We don’t want to restrict the release of ‘Burnout’ to Moroccan cinemas,” explains Alami. “We have potential to release the film across the MENA region and in Europe. We can use it to create a spotlight on Arab cinema.”
Alami believes that it’s important that local films are courageous and able to challenge taboos, while avoiding crossing certain boundaries that might offend sensibilities.
“Burnout” helmer Lakhmari shares this broad goal, but is also adamant that local filmmakers should resist any attempt at censorship from more conservative circles in Moroccan society.
He believes that filmmakers play a key role in shaping modern Morocco and challenges what he sees as hypocrisy from the current moderate Islamist government, which reinforced its parliamentary presence in Morocco’s Oct. 7 general election.
“What they’re saying and what they’re doing are two different things. As an artist, you can’t avoid talking about this. Some of us are talking about this. We can’t just let them do whatever they want.”
For “Burnout,” Lakhmari is using the same core crew as in his previous films, including American composer Richard Horowitz. The cast includes Sarah Perles who has a Moroccan mother and a Portuguese father, and Moroccan male actor, Anas El Baz, who also starred in “Casanegra.”
The film weaves together three stories: a rich man who lives a luxury life, but decides to divorce his wife and get rid of everything; a shoeshiner who wants to buy a prosthetic foot for his invalid mother; and a young medical student who decides to become a call girl and meets a conservative politician.
During the course of the film, the different characters cross paths.
By focusing on these parallel stories, Lakhmari aims to show that people in Morocco live in separate worlds.
“I want to say to Moroccans that we live in the same country but we don’t see each other. There are such strong social barriers between the rich and poor, the rich ignore the poor and the poor hate the rich.”
He added: “But if you can get the different communities to talk together they suddenly feel that they’re all living in the same country. My film is ultimately about redemption.”
Lakhmari is a great admirer of post-war Italian neorealism and sees many parallels with contemporary Moroccan cinema. After releasing “Burnout,” he would like to direct a U.S.-Moroccan English language production, but says that it’s too early to talk about this project in detail.
However, he is confident that local filmmakers will be able to withstand censorship challenges and will help build upon the spirit of freedom of expression that has been achieved over recent years.
“Morocco is a beautiful country for tourists. We have a king who loves art and cinema. Moroccan people are hungry for art and culture. But for our government, culture and art is secondary. You have to invest in art and culture. Politicians are not following society and we are handicapped by that. But as filmmakers we are a strong force and we will make sure that our voices are heard.”