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Director-producer Nabil Ayouch and actor-director Maryam Touzani are attending the Marrakech Film Festival for the gala screening of Touzani’s debut feature, “Adam,” on Tuesday. The film, written by her, with the collaboration of Ayouch, and produced by the latter, is Morocco’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

“Adam” had its world premiere in Cannes Un Certain Regard, has won 16 prizes at major festivals, and has been sold by sales agent Films Boutique to more than 15 territories, including U.S., France, Benelux, Australia, Japan, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil.

The pic, starring Lubna Azabal and Nisrin Erradi, is about a life changing encounter in Casablanca’s Medina between Samia, a heavily pregnant, single young woman from the countryside, and Abla, a widow with a vivacious eight-year-old daughter who has set up a bakery.

Touzani says that the inspiration for the film was linked to her own friendship with an unmarried pregnant woman in Tangier.

The subject of sex outside of wedlock has come into the spotlight in Morocco in 2019 after a female Moroccan journalist, Hajar Raissouni, and her fiancé were convicted of extramarital sex and an alleged abortion, including a two-year sentence for the doctor.

The case triggered an international outcry and sparked a major social movement in Morocco including a petition signed by more than 10,000 people, and a statement signed by hundreds of Moroccan women, entitled “We, Moroccan citizens, declare that we are outlaws,” that was published by Moroccan media outlets and France’s Le Monde newspaper.

The conviction was subsequently quashed by a royal pardon and there is now a movement to change legislation that in 2018 alone convicted 17,000 people for extramarital sex, adultery or homosexuality.

Focus on gender-related issues has increased in Morocco over recent years including new legislation against gender-related harassment and violence and a drive to ensure equality between Moroccan women and men in terms of inheritance law.

Touzani and Ayouch believe that film and TV projects can play an important role in terms of raising people’s awareness of social injustices.

“You have to remember that around 40% of Morocco’s population is still illiterate,” says Touzani. “Cinema and TV can play an important role because they’re accessible to everyone and can change people’s mentalities, by attracting audiences to our cinemas, inspiring public debate in the media and reaching people’s homes via television.”

“Things are moving very quickly in Morocco,” adds Ayouch. “Cinema is one part of the wider picture. We have groups demonstrating in Tangier and Rabat for their rights. Some have launched an initiative called ‘My body, my right/freedom.’ For the very first time, the official state body, the CNDH (Conseil National des Droits de l’Homme) run by a brave woman, Amina Bouayach, has sent a memorandum to parliament asking for the right of abortion, the legalization of extramarital sex and decriminalization of homosexuality, etc. This offers strong support for all those women, minorities and associations who have waged a very lonely fight for ages… and I think that’s wonderful!”

Combatting exploitation of women and gender-based prejudices are increasingly central themes in Ayouch’s work. A key example was his 2015 prostitution drama “Much Loved” that focused on the plight of female prostitutes in Marrakech. The pic was vilified by conservative critics and was banned.

Ayouch says that he was surprised by the virulence of the attacks at the time, including death threats via social media and a street assault on lead actress, Loubna Abidar in Casablanca.

“After ‘Much Loved’ I had the feeling that I was pretty much alone,” explains Ayouch. “But things are changing quickly and seem to have come to a head this year.”

Ayouch’s “Razzia,” written by Ayouch and Touzani, is about five characters snared by intolerance, including a rebellious modern woman, Salima, played by Touzani, who is shunned by her misogynist husband at home, and criticized in the street for her tight-fitting clothes. The film was the third-highest grossing film in Morocco in 2018, and was chosen as Morocco’s Oscar entry for the Academy Awards.

Ayouch’s next picture “Casablanca Beats” (previously titled “Positive School”) is a realist hip-hop musical, to be released in 2020. His main goal in this project is to give visibility and hope to young performers. The project includes many non-professional actors. “The film highlights talented boys and girls but during casting although we identified many very gifted girls from Agadir, Tangier or Marrakech, their families didn’t want them to travel to Casablanca to take part in the shoot,” Ayouch says.

The project is being repped by France’s Advitam and has backing from Canal Plus in France, Moroccan broadcaster 2M, and the CNC’s World Cinema support program.

Touzani and Ayouch, in conjunction with Rita El Quessar, are completing the scripts for “Blackout,” an eight-hour real-time, near-future social-issue thriller drama series, set on the border of Europe and Africa in and around Ceuta, one of Spain’s enclaves in Morocco.

The series was one of 16 drama series projects pitched in April at MipTV’s In Development competition, where it was one of the three main prize winners. Principal photography is slated to begin in April 2020.

Set in the near future, a power cut plunges the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in Northern Morocco, into a blackout, causing the electrified barrier to fail and thousands of migrants sweep into the city.

Each one-hour episode, running in real time, focuses on a main character. The characters include Pilar de la Barca, general officer of Ceuta’s Guardia Civil, Thialé, a former Nigerian child-soldier, and Awa, a Senegalese woman, who is trying to rescue her younger sister, who is trapped in a prostitution ring.

“The series is about the physical and emotional walls that are going up in every society,” says Ayouch. “You just have to look at Andalusia in Spain, which is a centuries old mixture of cultures and religion and different peoples, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Now the extreme right is the biggest party in the region. People are afraid, especially of migrants. There’s a similar danger in Morocco where we have many migrants from sub-Saharan countries that travel through our country towards Europe. If we let our fears drive us, walls will start going up everywhere.”

“‘Blackout’ is a character-driven series,” adds Touzani. “The worst kind of walls are those we build inside our minds. We’re increasingly creating a dichotomy between who we are on the outside and who we can be on in the inside.”

Both Ayouch and Touzani recently signed with talent agency CAA, which they hope will open more doors. “This is a good step as long as we maintain our focus.” concludes Ayouch. “We don’t aim to work in the United States. We want to keep working in our country because so many exciting things are happening here.”