The film was chosen byan independent commission nominated by the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), composed of writers, directors, producers, distributors, plus a representative of the CCM, and was chaired by writer and painter Mahi Binebine.
Ayouch is one of the Arab world’s best-known directors. Three of his previous features have been put forward by Morocco as its Oscar submission – Mektoub” (1998), “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets” (2000), and “Horses of God” (2013).
In June, he became the first Moroccan to be invited as a lifetime member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where one of the pre-requisites to be invited was that at least two of his films must have been shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
Ayouch said that he “was surprised and happy” to be invited to join the Academy.
“It’s a recognition of my work by the world’s oldest film academy and will probably help Moroccan cinema, and the cinema of the region, to get more visibility in Hollywood,” he said.
He added: “I think that it is a smart decision by the Academy Awards to open up to the rest of the world’s film industries, especially the Arab world, at a time when the U.S. administration is getting more aggressive and closed.”
“Razzia” is his most ambitious project to date, weaving together five separate stories over a 40-year period. One of the film’s recurring themes is a reference to the 1942 classic “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, which is ironically one of Morocco’s best-known symbols, even though it was shot entirely in Hollywood during WWII.
“In both films, people are fighting against an ideology,” Ayouch explained. “They’re fighting against the Nazis in ‘Casablanca’ and in my film they are also trying to resist. The analogy is very clear.”
For Ayouch, the “Casablanca” sub-theme didn’t influence the nomination but he thinks it will help bring “Razzia” closer to American audiences.
The helmer was delighted by the response in Toronto. “There were very good reactions from industry professionals and especially the audience. The three screenings were sold out. Maryam Touzani, the main actress and co-scriptwriter) and I heard great comments from the audience during and after the Q&A’s. The audience showed a real interest towards the directing/structure and the issues that the film deals with, such as civil rights and education in the Arab world.”
The nomination as Morocco’s official candidate for the Academy Awards marks a significant turnaround in recent domestic appraisal of Ayouch’s work, following the 2015 ban of his previous pic, prostitution drama “Much Loved” – which received severe criticism from local conservative hawks, who have been trying to guarantee “clean art” in Moroccan film and television.
Ayouch confided to Variety that his Academy Awards nomination demonstrates that there isn’t a unidirectional approach towards Moroccan cinema and he’s hopeful that it forms part of a more open attitude towards film at home.
The October 2016 elections in Morocco allowed a new government to be formed in April involving a broader coalition. An important change in terms of film and TV is that the Ministry of Communication is no longer led by a minister from the Islamist PJD party. Ayouch stated that, “in regards to cinema, this gives much more freedom to the director of the Moroccan Cinematographic Center to fully decide of what should be the cinema industry policy.”
Nonetheless, the “Much Loved” controversy has left its marks on the helmer, who was forced to finance “Razzia” as an international co-production without the help of the CCM, which had originally offered a $500,000 grant for an earlier version of the script – structured as a sci-fi project – but then rejected his second application for funding.
Ayouch is Morocco’s highest-profile director amongst a select group of local helmers who have carved out significant international recognition over recent years, including fellow directors such as Faouzi Bensaidi, whose “Volubilis” world premiered at Venice.
“Razzia” is produced by Bruno Nahon’s Paris-based Unité de Production, and is co-produced by Ayouch’s Casablanca-based production house, Ali’N Productions, Les Films du Nouveau Monde, France 3 Cinéma, and Belgium’s Artemis Productions. International sales are handled by Films Distribution (currently rebranding itself as Playtime).
The film also received funding from Eurimages, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation’s Film Centre, Belgian tax rebates and SofitvCiné 4, and was pre-sold to Canal Plus, OCS, RTBF, BeTV and Voo.
Ayouch is currently working on a musical and a project he describes as “a very intimate movie” which he may shoot in France.
“Razzia” will be released in Morocco In January 2018,, and also in France, distributed by Ad Vitam, a top art film distributor.
The 90th Academy Awards ceremony take place on March 4, 2018.