Morocco has a long history of providing locations for foreign productions, among them films by Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, John Huston, and more recently Martin Scorcese, Riddley Scott, and Oliver Stone. However, few foreigners have much interest or knowledge about Moroccan cinema.
Since the 1980s and the reconciliation between the audience and the filmmaking cohort, Moroccan cinema has been facing a number of challenges. These challenges include the low level of state funding and distribution and screening problems, with the theatres of the kingdom quickly closing, overall movie attendance and box-office receipts plummeting, and piracy rampant.
Nonetheless, Moroccan films continue to rank high in audience preferences and there is a great vitality in the creative and productive sectors. Cinema in the kingdom displays particular richness in terms of thematic diversity. There is a strong tradition of dark social realism in Moroccan film production, and new themes have emerged feeding from traumatic historical events and social trends. The most preeminent are the Years of Lead or “Les Années de Plomb” (a term used to qualify the period of heavy repression during the reign of Hassan II), the massive emigration of Moroccan Jews in the 1960s which represented about 10 per cent of the population and an essential part of Moroccan identity, the diversity of Moroccan society in terms of social class, sexuality, language and origins; the role of Amazigh culture and languages in Moroccan national life, emigration to Europe and the identity construction of Moroccans living abroad, and the socio-economic situation of women (especially following the 2004 revising of the Mudawana, the family code in Moroccan law).
It is sometimes complicated to find Moroccan films of value on the internet, so I want to present four of my favourite Moroccan directors to you.
Born in 1969 in Paris, he is the son of the well known Moroccan advertising and microcredit executive Noureddine Ayouch and a French mother of Jewish-Tunisian descent. After studying theatre in Paris in the 1980s, he worked in advertising while directing a number of short films between 1992 and 1994. He finally made his first feature-length film, Mektoub, in 1997.
Since then, he has founded two production houses, both in Morocco with the aim of fostering young talent and developing cinema in the country. He has also led the charge against piracy in the kingdom. Up to now, Ayouch has directed seven feature-length films and one documentary.
In Morocco, he stands as a controversial figure, who is often judged out of ignorance of his intention or even the substance of his productions. According to Ayouch, “In our society, we have problems with public debates so we want to hide everything, we want to bury everything.” In order to shake minds, Ayouch has been breaking through a variety of taboos in his films, creating new terrains for representing controversial socio-political issues, and transgressive or marginalised identities. In 2015, clips of his new film, Much Loved, were uploaded online before the release. Portraying Moroccan prostitutes in explicit and degrading situations, these clips created a polemic. Many thought that the movie was “trashy” and disrespected the dignity of Moroccan women, which led to the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre censoring it. Regardless of the quality of the movie and without questioning the necessity of some of its scenes, one has to admit that the virulent popular response revealed a trend in public debate which has to be done away with.
Ayouch’s controversial themes have not always been rejected by Moroccan audience – in fact, to the contrary. His audacious debut film, Mektoub (Fate, 1997), was well-received. It revolves a real life scandal that broke in the Moroccan press in early 1993, when a high-ranking police commissioner in Casablanca named Mustapha Tabit was arrested and sentenced to the death penalty for abducting and raping over five hundred women, crimes that he recorded on over one hundred videotapes. The country’s “trial of the century” represented the launching point for deep changes in the state authority and the limits on mass media representation in the country. He then took on the topics of street children, depravation, transsexuality, and more.
I would recommend watching his Horses of God (2003). On 16 May 2003, 14 suicide bombers from the Sidi Moumen shanty town Casablanca attacked five separate locations in the centre of the city. Forty-four people in total died during the attacks. It was the first terrorist attack in the country’s modern history and a deeply traumatic event especially as the attackers were young Moroccans, not members of an international terrorism network. This movie, adapted from Mahi Binebine’s novel, explores the origins of this terrorist attack as it follows the lives of several young men living in Sidi Moumen, as they are inflicted and transformed by the brutality of their environment. The violence of their daily life, the lack of emotional support and functional family structure, the absence of state intervention, the isolation and poverty of the population are depicted as sentencing them to a visceral vulnerability which allows them exposed to indoctrination, and then leads them to commit the unspeakable.
Born in 1964 in Safi, Lehkmari has been a resident in Norway since 1986. He first studied pharmacy at Nancy in France and then Modern languages and chemistry in Oslo. He then discovered a passion for cinema and undertook further study in Paris and New York. After a number of short films, he released The Gaze/ (Le Regard, 2004), a tale of memory and guilt of a seventy-year-old French photographer, who as a young army photographer in Morocco toward the end of the French colonial occupation witnessed atrocities but failed to intervene.
This gaze on Moroccan history and the traumas of our independence was an interesting debut, but cannot compare and hardly fits in with the rest of Lekhmari’s cinematography.
This director focuses on Morocco in its modernity, and in particular on Casablanca, its economic capital. He aims to get rid of the folklore, artifices and embellishment that surround our very touristic country and reveal Morocco’s reality, free from complexes or taboos. His films, Casanegra (2008) and Zero (2012), two of the most commercially successful Moroccans films in the past decade, present the metropolis as a maze, whose intricacy and beauty few can grasp. He explores the mutability of human relationships – the violence and the cruelty, but also the persistence and the profundity of love. According to Lekhmari, young Moroccans face now the same challenges their counterparts in Europe endure. It is vital to depart from the post-colonial mentality and assume our cinema and individuality. He believes Moroccan cinema enjoys a freedom unrivalled in the Arab world, which constructs a thriving environment for young artists who additionally were educated abroad and bring back a different set of skills and fresh knowledge.
From his cinematography, I would recommend watching Casanegra (2008), which follows the violent lives of two Casablanca youths, Adil and Karim, as they try, through petty crime and other schemes, to achieve their goals. The brutality of their family setting and their consistent hope for a better life constructs a very tangible tale of desperate, disoriented youth in a fast-changing society.
Born in 1962 in Kenitra in Morocco, he enrolled in film studies in France at the Établissement Cinématographique et Photographique des Armes at Ivry. He subsequently settled in France, where he worked in television and as a scriptwriter on three films by the French filmmaker Cédric Kahn, before directing his own feature-length productions. Ferroukhi confronts cultures and beliefs to break barriers and encourage dialogue. His movie The Grand Journey (2004) depicts the pilgrimage of a father and his son to Mecca. Reda, a young French-Moroccan man, is forced to drive his father through the continent, a few weeks before his baccalaureate. What ensues is an amazing tale about identity, generational and cultural conflicts, and power dynamics, but also love. The whole is filmed with accuracy, relevance and an unimaginable generosity. It represents what I consider to be the style of this director.
However, my top recommendation goes to another movie. Free Men (2012) unveils the forgotten story of the resistance of the Paris Mosque during the Nazi occupation. Despite being fictional, the film presents the true story of two characters, the head of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, and the mosque’s Algerian-born chief singer, Salim Halali, who provided falsified documents to Jews in order to save them from deportation. In the film, an Algerian young man, living off the black market, is forced to cooperate with the local authorities to report on the happenings in the Mosque. In 1942, at a time where Arabs and Jews living in or hailing from the Maghreb saw themselves as part of the same community, the Nazi suspected the mosque sheltered Jewish children and needed an “inside agent”.
Born in 1977 in Casablanca, he studied law at university before pursuing a career in writing and dramaturgy. He realised several short films and finally made his debut with the feature-length film The End in 2011.
Lasri is another of these controversial directors who provoke political debate. His characters seem to always be devoid of their sanity or emotionality. They are generally vulnerable people who find it difficult to withstand the traumatic events which shape their lives and inflict suffering on them. Through tales which are absurd in their depiction yet oddly realistic in their message or theme, often set in unknown, isolated parts of Morocco, he both entertains his audience and gives it food for thought. He directs a critical gaze on Moroccan history covering the 2011 protests, the 1981 bread riots and King Hassan II’s death. Beyond the thematic, his films present a real cinematographic interest in term of stylistics: from found footage to black and white static shots, the play with colours and lights, the movements of the camera and the artistic precision adds value and interest to his films. In 2013, he directed C’est eux les chiens (They are the dogs), a film set during the 2011 protests which led to the revision of the Moroccan constitution. As two journalists are reporting on the events, they meet a man, imprisoned during the bread riots of 1981, who just released after 30 years of detention, is in search for his family. It is a very touching film about two major historical occurrences which shook up the Moroccan political and social makeup.
There are several other films which I think are definitely worth a watch, which I shall list below:
The Midnight Orchestra (2016) by Jerome Cohen-Olivar is a hilarious film. Michael, the main protagonist, leaves Morocco as a young boy in the 1960s amidst racial tensions spurred by the Yom Kippur war. Decades later, he returns, solicited by his dad, a famous Jewish musician, who dies of a heart attack in the first scenes of the film. Accompanied by a crazy and delirious taxi driver, he commits to find and reunite his dad’s band members for his funeral. This film is amazing! I laughed all the way through. It was particularly enjoyable because I could relate so much and understood the culture in which the tale unfolds, but you will undoubtedly be entertained and finish the movie seeing Morocco in a new light.
Marock (2005) by Leila Marrakchi is one of the few Moroccan films representing rich French-educated youth in the 1990s with such accuracy. The commercial success was huge in Morocco, but the film was quite controversial in spite of this, as it pictures on screen usually ‘hidden’ behaviours (such going to clubs, extra-marital relations between teens, not sustaining the fast during the holy month of Ramadan) and deals with romantic relationships between Muslims and Jews. The story itself is fairly simple: girl falls in love with boy. There is, however, a major twist: the girl in question is Muslim and the boy Jewish. The girl’s family is not very pleased, and the boy’s friends think she’s just a sidekick (“Youri, imagine bringing an Arab home to your parents!”). The film is relatable, one that most Moroccans my age have watched or at least know the story of. It says a lot about perception of identity, and the diversity and practice of faith in Morocco. Overall, it shows a different face to the country: the bubble of the rich kids who are driven to school, gather in private clubs, and end up furthering their studies in Europe – most definitely worth watching.
Sweat Rain (2016) by Hakim Belabbes. The idea of this film blossomed in the director’s mind when he met an old farmer in his hometown a few years ago. The man, having lost his small plot of land due to debt, was left with nothing else than the shirt on his back. The director wanted to portray his desperation, to put on screen the lives of the forgotten people, isolated in villages in what was long called “the Useless Morocco”. Here, a poor farmer, M’Barek, fights to pay off his debts in the hope that he might keep his land. This paints a genuine picture of the persistent pride of the characters who turn back to their family values as a result of enduring poverty. The film also offers beautiful shots of the Moroccan countryside. TOTALLY worth watching!