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The Battle of Algiers: a formative influence on Moroccan cinema

Algeria partnershipLaying bare the social and economic structures of oppression to reconstruct a national psyche from the ruins – how an idea caught on.

 

Martin Evans: What impact did the Battle of Algiers have upon Moroccan cinema?

Jamal Bahmad:  Moroccan postcolonial cinema came into existence in the shadow of The Battle of Algiers (1966). The filmmakers saw themselves as progressive intellectuals with the duty of laying bare the social and economic structures of oppression which were holding back Morocco. Even though The Battle of Algiers did not create a cult of the collective hero as in Algeria, the first Moroccan films showed a strong affinity with their Algerian counterparts through delving into the past in an attempt to understand it and reconstruct a sense of national self from its ruins. The big question of Moroccan cinema was existential: who are we? Due to the lack of state funding for feature films until 1980 and the difficult climate of fear under King Hassan II’s increasingly authoritarian regime, filmmakers resorted to personal fictions which when scrutinised reveal themselves to be national allegories of a subtle kind. Instead of the commemoration of the heroic past in Algerian cinema in the 1960s and 70s, Moroccan films from 1968 onwards asked the same questions about national identity by exploring the national psyche and the building blocks of Moroccan subjectivity.

ME: Morocco won independence from France in 1956? How did Moroccan cinema develop?

JB: Morocco inherited a relatively well-developed film infrastructure from the French colonisers, who invested heavily in making films in and about Morocco in the protectorate. The Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CMM) was established in 1944 to regulate and control the burgeoning sector but also to counter the growing influence of Egyptian cinema, which was seen as a threat because it allegedly spread ideas of Arab and Muslim nationalism. The CCM passed into Moroccan hands in 1956 and, in line with the developmental priorities of the independent state, focused on the production of newsreels and pedagogical documentaries about nation-building projects. These were shown in every cinema in the country before every main film screening. The trend continued throughout the 1960s and much of the 70s. The CCM’s production of documentaries and newsreels slowly died out with the coming of television, which the state seized upon to promote itself and its discourse of national identity. It was not until 1980 that the government introduced the famous Fonds de Soutien to support feature film production. The funding scheme was substantially revised in 1987 (with partial amendments in 2004 and 2012) so as to make Moroccan cinema a cultural industry with an international reputation.

ME: Who are the key political filmmakers?  What themes did they address?  How have they changed over time?

JB: For the sake of convenience, let me distinguish between two generations with distinct styles and preoccupations in Moroccan cinema. The first one consists of film directors born in the (late) colonial period and who were active in the national film industry from independence to the 2000s. The second generation emerged in the 1990s and has changed the face of Moroccan cinema through transnational aesthetics, thematic audacity and technical quality. Some of the key filmmakers of the first generation are Hamid Bennani, Souheil Ben Barka, Ahmed Bouanani, Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi, Jilali Ferhati, Mohamed Reggab, Farida Benlyazid, Nabyl Lahlou, Mustapha Derkaoui, Hakim Noury, Abdelkader Lagtaâ, Farida Bourquia, Abdelmajid Rchiche.  Some of the finest directors among the second generation are Nabil Ayouch, Noureddine Lakhmari, Faouzi Bensaïdi, Narjiss Nejjar, Mohamed Achaour, Mohamed Cherif Tribek, Mohamed Mouftakir, Hicham Falah, Ali Safi, Ahmed Baidou.

Moroccan cinema has come a long way from its timid beginnings in the late 1960s to what is today a vibrant quality cinema with increasing visibility abroad. National cinema in its early decades was driven by a thematic grid centred on patriarchy, pastoral imagery and a cerebral aesthetic of national allegorism. Despite the sterling experiments of filmmakers like Ahmed Bouanani and Mustapha Derkaoui and the thespian forays of Nabyl Lahlou on the big screen, most veteran filmmakers were not keen on making formally self-conscious works. The wave of films that have garnered wide audience attention since the 1990s have applied shock therapy to Moroccan society through a politically motivated aesthetic realism. The filmmakers of the second generation are commonly called Briseurs de tabous (Breakes of tabous), a movement of Moroccan artists who aim to change society by unsettling its convictions about religion and sexuality. Their aim is to force it to see itself through the prism of repressed desires and subaltern narratives. Their vision consists of a creative destruction of a society torn between a yearning for secular modernity and a powerful longing for traditions and a glorious if imperial past.

ME:  Identify three key Moroccan films - explaining what they are and why you think they are so important?

JB: Certainly – my three:

Wechma (1970) by Hamid Bennani.

This film is often considered the first truly postcolonial film in Morocco. It is a subtle treatise on the national subject. It tells the story of Messaoud's troubled childhood under the stern gaze of his overbearing stepfather and his tragic delinquency after failing to stand up to the Father and an oppressive social system. This film has enjoyed limited impact among the general public despite the critical consensus on its aesthetic merits as a national allegory and cinematic achievement. Wechma set a benchmark for Moroccan cinema over the course of 1970s when various films of a high standard were made despite the lack of state support for feature cinema and the lack of commercial distribution for national films.

Hallaq derb al-fuqara / The Barber of the Poor’s Neighbourhood (1982) by Mohamed Reggab.

Set in a poor working-class neighbourhood in Casablanca, this film is notorious for being one of the first Moroccan films to be censored. The CCM and local banks made its production a fiasco. It has never had a general release in Morocco, but the film is famous for its originality and political message. The USSR-trained Reggab brought to the fore the narratives of resistance among the urban poor at a time when Moroccan cities, particularly Casablanca, witnessed massive upheavals against poverty and King Hassan’s police regime. Despite its difficult conditions of production, the films stands out for its artistic qualities as an original undertaking in the history of Moroccan cinema. The film captures the feelings of ordinary people in 1980s Morocco.


Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Streets (2000) by Nabil Ayouch

The second feature film of the French-Moroccan director remains one of the most popular films in recent years. It is not only an award-magnet, but also the film which brought Casablanca's street children to national and global attention. The eponymous protagonist dies a violent death in the film’s opening sequence and his three friends—Kwita, Omar, and Boubker—pull him on a makeshift carrier to their hideout in a disused part of the seaport’s concrete pier. They decide to bury him like a prince in accordance with his dream. Ali dreamed and died a prince (of the streets). In reality, as his three friends put it: “He led a shitty life, but he shall not be given a shitty burial.” Ayouch cast real street kids for this fictional account of street life. As a diasporic filmmaker recently established in Morocco, he observed this other world in the streets of Casablanca. He spent two years talking to these children in the country’s main cities. The street children as actors provide a convincing portrait of life on the streets through natural behaviour aided by compelling looks and the indelible scars on their haggard faces, bruised souls and worn bodies. Before mostly going back to street life after Ali Zawa’s shooting was over, they acted their own world with agency rather than projecting it through the spectatorial gaze. The film’s combination of gritty realism and fantasmatic animation unveils the harsh everyday life of society’s homeless kids whilst retaining a space for the expression of their dreams and historical agency.

 

This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the University of Portsmouth and the University of Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the authors

Jamal Bahmad researches on North African cinema at the University of Stirling.

Martin Evans is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sussex.  He was formerly Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Portsmouth. He is the co-author (with John Phillips) of Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press: 2007) and the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press: 2012). 

Read On

Read more from our Battle of Algiers debate, part of our Algeria and the Arab Revolutions editorial partnership with Martin Evans of the University of Sussex.


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