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When I was asked to write about independent cinema in Morocco, I wondered what films I might put in this category. I quickly realized, however, that the very notion of “independent cinema” had to be rethought and redefined in the particular context of Morocco.
Let’s begin with two films made in the same year (2017): Lahnech (The Serpent) by Driss Mrini and Razzia by Nabil Ayouch. The two movies are very different. The first is a popular comedy produced as a commercial movie for entertainment, while the second presents itself as a film with artistic and political ambitions that provide a critique of power and of religious conservatism in Moroccan society. One would imagine that the second film would have a harder time finding financing and would have only modest visibility compared to the former, but it is quite the opposite. Razzia had a budget of more than 12 million Dirhams (1.2 million euros) while Lahnech cost only 3.5 million Dirhams (350,000 euros). Razzia will be distributed in Morocco, Belgium, Brazil, Lithuania, Spain and France, while Lahnech will only be distributed locally. These two examples are not at all exceptions. A significant number of films that are increasingly classified as “independent cinema” or “arthouse cinema” will benefit from greater budgets and better distribution.
“Independent cinema,” as it is called in the history of cinema, is a movement of American filmmakers and producers who freed themselves from the monopoly of big Hollywood companies to propose an alternative, economical and practical cinema. The resulting films were often low-budget films that no longer met the commercial requirements of the majors, allowing them to experiment with new ways of producing, filming, and telling stories. The concept has evolved considerably since then and has found different variations in other countries depending on the particular contexts. The basic principle, however, remains the same: a cinema that positions itself against powerful and dominant institutions and against the themes, narratives and aesthetic forms they impose.
To understand what independent cinema can be in Morocco, it would first be necessary to know from what institutions and what habits it would proclaim its independence. This is a thorny issue since there is no real film industry in Morocco, equivalent to Hollywood, from which we must free ourselves.
First of all, there exists the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), a state institution that governs everything related to cinema in the country, from filming permits (without which it is illegal to film), the financing of film festivals, financial support for film production and the granting of professional credentials. This is an old administration inherited from the colonial period, with its good and bad aspects, but which is above all proof of the domination of the State over everything that is directly or indirectly related to cinema.
Secondly, there is foreign financing on which a significant part of Moroccan film production depends. Before talking about independent cinema and commercial cinema, we must first differentiate between two other categories that best explain the economic context:
The reality is that the limits of the Moroccan market (a chain of less than 50 theaters and an underdeveloped distribution of DVDs and VOD) push producers to turn to other audiences, mainly in France, where there is a public interested in what is called “world cinema,” as well as a large Moroccan diaspora. Knowing how distribution is intrinsically linked to production, filmmakers and producers start thinking about foreign financing as soon as they write their scripts. This represents an economic dependency that creates a symbolic domination since each organization that offers financial aid has its own criteria and its own idea about cinema in general, but also and especially about the genre of cinema from Morocco that they would like to support. Thus, the films that best seduce foreign funds and that have the talent to best adapt to their expectations will have the largest budgets, the widest distribution and therefore the greatest financial profitability, but also the ones that will win the most awards in international festivals based mainly in Europe and North America.
However, these films with their extremely well-crafted commercial logic will never be viewed as commercial films. Instead, they will be marketed as unconventional arthouse films with strong artistic and political ambitions. It all boils down to one simple fact: the French and international institutions that finance these films are institutions that proclaim their support for art, diversity and freedom of expression. A Moroccan film that would like to have this help cannot present itself as a commercial film, it is obliged to be “free,” to be “different,” to defend freedom of expression against all political and economic power. It must be “independent,” or at least have the appearance of independence!
Independence, rebellion, and freedom have become brands, a guarantee of quality, a marketing tool. Filmmakers like Nabil Ayouch, Leila Marrakchi, Meryem Ben’mbarek, and Narjiss Nejjar have understood very well the formula for success: exotic misery inspired by the worst colonial tradition in a complacent and reassuring way, all presented with a posture of rebellion and false scandal! This “independence mandate” is in fact the result of neo-colonial domination: if it were not for the French and Western institutions, with what right would it be okay to say what should or should not be considered Moroccan cinematographic freedom, if not for this old idea inherited from colonial thought that the mission of the West is to teach its democratic values and the rights of man to other peoples (not to mention the non-white races) of the world who are unable to formulate or adopt them themselves?
There are filmmakers looking for true artistic independence who must confront these two main powers. It is their positions against these powers, their economic and aesthetic choices, that allow us to understand the political and truly subversive scope of their cinemas. Some choose to totally or partially reject the entire production system that dominates Morocco, producing their films on small budgets thanks to personal or alternative financing. This is the case, for example, of Amussu (Nadir Bouhmouch, 2019), a documentary that focuses on the struggle of the inhabitants of Imider against a powerful silver mine that is destroying the environmental balance of their land. The production itself of this film was a strongly politically move due its refusal of any official funding. Bouhmouch collaborated with the inhabitants of Imider to produce, but also to write, shoot and edit the film. Amussu benefited from increased official funding and visibility at various international festivals, which proves that filmmakers must always eventually negotiate with the powers that be. The rejection of the usual structures allowed the film to free itself from its financial and political limitations, but the search for visibility to bring attention to the cause defended by the film forced it to go through more official circuits.
Documentary makes it possible to find more freedom, difficult to achieve in the more expensive form of fiction. Filmmakers such as Ali Essafi (Ouarzazate Movie, 2001), Dalila Ennadre (J’ai tant aimé, 2008), or Hakim Belabbès (Le poids de l’ombre, 2016) have been able to deal with difficult topics using a unique and free aesthetic thanks to documentary. Another form, video art, on the edge of cinema, also allows freedom from certain financial, technical and narrative limitations thanks to its experimental possibilities. The work of artist and videographer Ghita Skalli is a very good example. Her videos (The Hole’s Journey in 2010 and The invaders in 2021) allows her to play with various codes of power (the sacredness of the photo of King Hassan II, the power and bureaucracy of museum institutions, masculinity and the normativity of genre), but her work remains unknown to the general public, an aspect of this artistic form aimed at a small and specialized audience.
On the other hand, some filmmakers decide to confront the system, with its dominations and limitations, and push it towards its limits and contradictions. This is the case of Faouzi Bensaïdi, whose fiction films are produced in the most classic way possible but whose purpose and aesthetics frustrate the expectations of a “southern” cinema. WWW: What a Wonderful World (2006) reappropriates cinematographic universes as different and diverse as Polar and Western genre cinema, the cinema of Federico Fellini and Jacques Tati, Bollywood and James Bond, thus affirming his condition as a global filmmaker influenced by the images of this world, with the same freedom as that of a Western filmmaker, without having to correspond to any closed or reductive category, especially that of a pseudo-independent Moroccan filmmaker.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)