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Moroccan cinema at crossroads – Marrakech Film Fest celebrates its 15th edition

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Jury members (from left to right), Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amal Ayouch, Anton Corbijn, Naomi Kawase, Francis Ford Coppola, Olga Kurylenko, Sami Bouajila, Richa Chadda and Sergio Castellitto attend the photocall during the 15th Marrakech International Film Festival in Marrakech, Morocco, on Dec 4. The festival runs from Dec 4-12. (AP)
Jury members (from left to right), Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amal Ayouch, Anton Corbijn, Naomi Kawase, Francis Ford Coppola, Olga Kurylenko, Sami Bouajila, Richa Chadda and Sergio Castellitto attend the photocall during the 15th Marrakech International Film Festival in Marrakech, Morocco, on Dec 4. The festival runs from Dec 4-12. (AP)

LOS ANGELES, Dec 5, (RTRS): Given the current geo-political climate, all eyes are focused on developments in the Arab world, whether political, military or cultural.

Historically positioned at a crossroads between North and South and East and West, Morocco is one of the most developed countries in both the Arab World and Africa, and since 2008 has maintained an “advanced status” with the European Union, paving the way to full accession to the E.U. internal market.

Since film-loving King Mohamed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, cinema has received significant support.

The Marrakech Film Festival, now celebrating its 15th edition, has served as an important showcase for world cinema and also for Morocco’s liberal outlook.

Over recent years, Morocco, whose name means the Western Kingdom, has been consistently chosen to lens blockbuster productions – recent examples including “Spectre” and “Mission Impossible 6 – Rogue Nation” – because film producers are attracted by the kingdom’s spectacular locations, overall security and film-friendly environment.

During this same period, catalyzed by the presence of major foreign shoots and a major international film festival, Moroccan cinema has evolved into one of the Arab World’s most dynamic film industries, vying with the traditional film powerhouse of Egypt.

Freedom of speech has been vaunted as one of the strengths of the Moroccan film industry, placing the country at the forefront of the Arab world in terms of artistic freedom.

At home, Moroccan films have consistently represented around half of the country’s Top Ten films at the box-office and 2015 has been no exception.

Moroccan helmers such as Nabil Ayouch, Noureddine Lakhmari, Hicham Lasri, Faouzi Bensaidi, Leila Kilani and Narjiss Nejjar, have also become regulars on the international festival circuit.

Sarim Fassi Fihri, the head of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), would like to see further progress of the domestic industry with increasing presence in A-list festivals, and cites Romania — which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2007 — as an inspiration.

The Dubai-based international VOD platform, Icflix, set up operations in Morocco in 2013 and has inked co-production deals with several Moroccan helmers, including Lakhmari, with an eye on promoting Moroccan films throughout the Arab world.

However, to achieve these goals Moroccan films need to increase their production values, develop tighter scripts and embrace bolder approaches.

Objective

Interviewed by Variety, Icflix states that its objective is to “put Moroccan Cinema on the map” but suggests that “Moroccan movies address issues without delving boldly into them – they talk about issues but make sure they don’t offend.”

This is partly due to underlying Moroccan cultural values, which place an emphasis on mild manners and pacific co-existence.

It’s also linked to the different approaches adopted by local filmmakers.

For example, the biggest local hit in 2014 — “Behind Closed Doors” by Mohammed Ahed Bensouda — focused on the issue of sexual harassment of women in the workplace and led to a national movement to change Moroccan laws.

Bensouda believes that it’s possible to focus on such issues without creating direct confrontation. “Morocco’s neo-realist directors focus on frontal shock and provocation,” he suggests. “I prefer to show modern realities but in such a way that can attract a family audience. It’s all a question of choice of different styles.”

Careers

Some Moroccan filmmakers fear that if they become too outspoken their careers or films may be harmed.

Such concerns have been heightened since the 2011 election victory of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) that, despite its broadly moderate outlook, includes some conservative hawks.

Filmmakers in general consider that their freedom of expression remains intact, but significant concerns were raised in 2015 due to the government ban imposed on Nabil Ayouch’s prostitution drama “Much Loved,” one week after the film bowed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

The controversy soon eclipsed the merits of the film itself – indeed many of its critics only got to saw a few clips at most – and was transformed into a heated debate about the state of Moroccan culture.

The decision to impose a ban was viewed by some as a one-off incident. Some critics even considered that Ayouch’s disclosure of clips from the pic formed part of a deliberate marketing strategy, which although penalizing the film in its home territory made it the most-talked about Moroccan film internationally.

Prior to the pic’s release Ayouch disclosed his concerns about the potential reaction from the film: “The cinema we produce should be very aware of the world. If you’re worried about social reaction, you never know where the red lines are. I want to fight and talk about the topics that I feel are important.”

However Ayouch states that he was surprised by the virulence of the attacks against his film, including death threats via social media and a disturbing incident in early November, in which “Loved” lead actress, Loubna Abidar was assaulted by strangers in Casablanca and has since decided to emigrate to Paris.

Domestically, “Much Loved” divided public opinion since it raises important issues on where “red lines” exist in terms of freedom of expression.

Several of Ayouch’s colleagues were reluctant to speak up in defense of the film, perhaps partly due to fears of a potential negative impact on their careers but also because of doubts as to whether the film should be transformed into a cause celebre.

Several international film critics suggested that the film included too many stereotypes. For example Variety’s Jay Weissberg praised the cast’s remarkable bravery but stated that it “pushes the envelope yet says nothing new about how prostitutes, and women in general, are treated in the Kingdom.”

“Much Loved” has nonetheless won considerable festival kudos abroad. In addition to screening at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and at Toronto, the pic played at the Festival d’Angouleme in France in August, where Ayouch won Best Director and Loubna Abidar took Best Actress. Abidar also won Best Actress at the Festival du Film Francophone in Namur in September, and at the Gijon International Film Festival in November. The pic also screened in neighboring Tunisia, as part of the Carthage Int’l Film Fest, where it won the jury prize, and in the Estoril Film Fest in Lisbon, Portugal, where Ayouch received a career trib.

Hit

One of the pic’s main defenders in Morocco has been helmer Noureddine Lakhmari — himself no stranger to controversy since his 2008 local hit, “Casanegra,” which exposed the dark underbelly of Casablanca.

Lakhmari believes that Moroccan cinema is akin to Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s and 1950s which also suffered from censorship, including export bans.

He believes that the ban raises the specter of a clampdown on freedom of speech:

“All of a sudden, we feel that we’re living in the film, ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ with the priest ringing a bell when he sees a scene that he considers to be offensive to good taste.”

At the same time, Lakhmari downplays the long-term significance of the ban since he believes that this will be a temporary glitch in the country’s developing freedom of expression which will inevitably expand as Moroccan filmmakers increase their access to international festivals and distribution platforms.

Ayouch reveals that he is bowed, but not broken, and is currently prepping his next feature “Razzia”, while exploring VOD distribution possibilities for “Much Loved.”

CCM prexy Fassi Fihri refuses to be drawn into the debate and considers that, as an experienced filmmaker, Ayouch must have been aware of the impact his film was likely to generate.

Deals

Icflix, the Dubai-based VOD platform founded by chairman Fadi Mehio and CEO Carlos Tibi in 2012 is upping its commitment to the Moroccan market, by signing production deals with leading Moroccan filmmakers.

The platform has also announced that it is prepping the first Arabic production about the Islamic State – “Come Back” – which will be shot in English, French and Arabic, lensing in Belgium, Turkey, France and multiple Middle Eastern countries, to be released in the early summer 2016.

Icflix currently vies neck and neck with Starz as the leading VOD platform in the 370 million Middle East-North Africa (MENA) market, that has a young and highly wired demographic.

As competition grows in the market, including the announced entry of Netflix in 2016, Icflix is reinforcing its commitment to co-producing original content.

Creation of a single VOD platform across the MENA market is particularly attractive to producers of Arabic content, since to date they have been frustrated by a highly fragmented market.

In addition to its headquarters in the UAE, Icflix has offices in Morocco, Egypt and the Czech Republic and is currently available in Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Icflix offers Hollywood, Bollywood, and Arabic content (which it terms Jazwood).

Its first Arabic productions were acquired in 2014, including the Egyptian productions “HIV” and “Al Makida” that were released in October 2014.

In Morocco, Icflix has an exclusive strategic partnership with Maroc Telecom, operating as their video-on-demand arm and has launched a major advertising campaign, expecting to attract 1 million customers by the end of 2016.

One of the first co-production deals inked in Morocco is Noureddine Lakhmari’s upcoming feature, “Burn Out”.

“Icflix will give me access to other countries in the Arab world,” confides Lakhmari. “This new development will give us much greater creative freedom and will make Arab filmmakers better known throughout the region.”

The platform is also acquiring completed films, such as Jerome Cohen Olivar’s dramedy “The Midnight Orchestra,” about a Jewish businessman and a Muslim taxi driver, which bowed in Moroccan theaters this November.

“Icflix are wonderful people,” beams Cohen Olivar. “I was very pleasantly surprised, I think they will make a major difference to Moroccan cinema.”