Marrakech Fest Salutes Director Abdellah Masbahi, Comedian Abderrahim Tounsi

Tounsi gets rapturous reception, director’s daughter, Imane Masbahi, appeals for a film restoration program in Morocco

Abderrahim Tounsi
Courtesy of Marrakech International Film Festival

MARRAKECH, Morocco — The 16th Marrakech Festival paid tribute on Tuesday to the late director-producer Abdellah Masbahi, and 80-year old comedy actor Abderrahim Tounsi.

Often known as Abderraouf, Tounsi created a Moroccan Chaplin-style character that was hugely popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, typically wearing a red hat as he represented the humble “fool” who could poke fun at authority.

Tounsi was nominated in 2011 by Belgium’s Foundation des Nuits de l’Humour Arabe as the best Moroccan comedian of the 20th century, Although extremely popular he was overlooked by the local film industry. This inspired director Nassim Abassi to make a feature film, “My Uncle,” recuperating his character for one of the key roles. Screening at Marrakech after the career tribute, it features Tounsi as the uncle of a young struggling actress (Alia Erkab).

Abassi’s previous film with Tounsi, “Majid,” was also shown in an open air screening on Tuesday, in the presence of the actor, in Marrakech’s iconic Place Jemaa e-Fna, which is replete with snake charmers and fortune tellers. It received a rapturous reception from the locals.

The atmosphere inside Marrakech’s Palais des Congres for the homage was equally ecstatic as Tounsi arrived dressed in jacket with a red lining featuring the Moroccan five pointed star inside, which he playfully showed to the photographers.

The ceremony began with the in memoriam tribute to Abdellah Masbahi, which was hosted by leading local film critic, Mohamed Bakrim.

Born in 1936 in El Jadida in Morocco, Masbahi studied economics in Switzerland and screenwriting in ESEC in Paris.

After being appointed as director of the Moroccan film agency, he worked in Egypt  in the Cairo Film Studios.

That proved a defining experience which heavily influenced him when he began producing a series of films and TV movies and series. In 1983 he was commissioned to direct “Why Afghanistan?” starring Irene Pappas  but the film was never completed. He remained active as a producer until his death in September, 2016.

Bakrim described Masbahi as someone who was highly symbolic, a great man and professional who was one of the pioneers of Moroccan cinema.

This year’s Marrakech fest has also paid an in memoriam tribute to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Bakrim said that although the two directors explored different paths, they both shared a deep love for cinema.

Bakrim said that Masbahi was so passionate about cinema that his life couldn’t be separated from his cinema and vice versa.

He noted that against the backdrop of the emerging Moroccan cinema in the 1970s, known as the “decade of auteurs,” which used new cinematic language to challenge ideas and morals, Masbahi chose a more classic approach, linked to the Egypt’s film powerhouse, to reach audiences across the Arab world.

He said that Masbahi dreamt of a cinema project that could explore popular themes attaining an international dimension, intimately linked to the idea of building a pan-Arab film industry. But Masbahi had the courage to address controversial topics, such as social hypocrisy, drugs and geo-political conflict, Bakrim noted.

Masbahi’s daughter, Imane, who is a director and distributor, went on stage to receive the tribute and was clearly moved by the occasion.

“Dad you left us,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye.

She added: “I can still see you lying on your bed in hospital, talking about the script of your next movie. When I was little I thought that you were eternal, but you told me only movies are eternal. You were right.”

She then added that for the tribute they had inspected the copies of his old films which made her sad because of their poor condition. She then launched an appeal for a film restoration initiative so that her father and other deceased Moroccan cinematographers may “rest in peace.”

Tounsi’s tribute was hosted by Moroccan actress Hanane el Fadili. She described Tounsi as a legendary artist with a rich career, who is beloved by kids and adults all around Morocco.

She said that Tounsi avoided stereotypes and addressed serious and deep messages, daily concerns and denounced abuse and corruption.

“When the streets were empty it meant one of two things – either the national soccer team was playing or you were on TV.”

Fadini went on to ask why comedy is so absent from Moroccan films. Her final remark was: “You were a spokesperson for the voiceless in Morocco. You taught us to laugh about everything but also not to cry about everything. You have been the representative of the poor. But today I confidently say that you are the boss.”

After ascending to the stage, accompanied by his daughter, Tounsi received a three minute standing ovation to loud cheers. He stated that it was the happiest day of his life and dedicated the award to “all those who have loved and supported me over decades.”

He signed off with his renowned fiendish cackle, to the delight of the packed audience.