By Chloe Darnaud
In the middle of the dusty streets of the medina, a red carpet leads the way to the Roxy Theatre, one of the oldest cinemas still operating in the white city, Northern Morocco. This year’s edition of the National Moroccan Film Festival, far from the glitz and glamour of Cannes, offers a glimpse of the unostentatious industry.
Much has changed since the days the kasbah of Tangier was riddled with writers and poets of the Beat generation in search of cheap drugs, freedom, and the feeling that everything was permitted. Moroccan filmmakers are struggling in a hostile censored environment to fight corruption, gender inequality, domestic violence and state propaganda. Each film shown at the festival begins with a disclaimer that reads “Under the High Patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI”, meaning these filmmakers, however brave, talented, and opposed to the regime they may be, will not be laying their hands on the King. Along with the increasing difficulties to produce films in Morocco, the interest in cinema is considerably dropping, from 245 cinemas in operation in 1988, only 31 cinemas remain active in the country today. But filmmakers aren’t giving up.
The 18th edition of the festival boasted 15 feature films and 15 short films, ranging from fiction to documentary, bringing a fresh perspective to rusty Moroccan cinema and highlighting key social justice issues. A great opportunity to meet brave people on both sides of the lens, pointing fingers at violated human rights.
Three promising films stand out, showing how Moroccan filmmakers are firmly trying to change mentalities on social, religious and historical disputes.
Le voyage de Khadija, which won the editing award, is a documentary that follows the journey a woman born in Amsterdam to Riffian parents as she returns in the Rif, Northern Morocco for the first time in 20 years. As she tries to untangle her own roots, she is stunned by the presence of prominent sexism in Morocco. The film explores the way diaspora is perceived. On her quest for identity, she also puts the Moroccan women perception to the test, challenging people on their opinions.
Khadija al Mourabit, the main character of the documentary, whose grandmother, Mamma Alla plays a key role in the film, explains the aim of the film was to highlight strong female characters and their experiences. She says women are often regarded as second-class citizens. “We wanted to show the issues and challenges many people, and specifically women, from the Riffian diaspora face. We also wanted to have a closer look at gender inequality, gendered spaces and behaviour,” she says.
Khadija says she believes mentalities can change. “We hope that it will start a discussion and bring to light a neglected part of the experience of people in the Rif and the Riffian diaspora. The mutual relations and struggles, specifically from a female perspective,” she says.
For Tarik El Idrissi, the director of the documentary, also known for directing Rif 58-59 breaking the silence a controversial political film about the conflict in the Rif, there is no choice but to make politicised films. “I have no choice, I was born in a very politicised area, everything is politicised, I wish with all my strength that someday I’ll make a film about love, animals, or nomads in Mongolia,” he says.
But making politically engaged films has its own challenges, especially documentaries. State censorship is pervasive in the country. “It’s very difficult to make documentaries in Morocco; it’s easier to do fiction. But for me it is a continuous struggle, sometimes it’s very difficult, but it always becomes satisfying in the end. The biggest challenge is for people to talk in front of the camera without fear,” he explains.
Nevertheless, young filmmakers still go on dangerous territory, advocating social justice issues in a country where freedom of expression has its limits. The filmmaker who took the biggest risk at this year’s edition of the festival is 33-year-old El Medhi Azzam. With his fourth short film Bêlons, he attacks the hypocrisy of religion and the recent Islamification of society, by picturing the struggle of a young man in finding a bottle of wine for his alcoholic father during the Muslim holiday Eid Al-Adha, in the outskirts de Marrakech.
Mohamed Bouzaggou, who won the best scenario award for his film Iperita, choose to reveal the use of chemical arms in Spain during the Riffian war. “The majority of Moroccans don’t know the truth because nobody talks about it, not even the media,” he explains. “Unfortunately, the children aren’t taught about the Rif war at school, and this part of history is forgotten.”
He hopes Iperita will have an impact on its audience. “I would like the film to be seen by a large number of spectators so that people know about the amplitude of this problem. I want political activists and journalists take more interest in the subject. And why not influence Spain into acknowledging its crimes,” he says.
“The bitter truth is that a lot of theatres are closing down and people don’t go to cinemas because they are too interested in the Internet, says director Mohamed Bouzaggou. “It’s worth mentioning that in the whole region of Rif, there is no cinema and that is sorrowful.”
But while Morocco celebrates a new generation of brave filmmakers, doing their best investigating and criticising the Moroccan government and hoping for change, they continue to face prosecution and harassment if they step too far.