‘Rizzia’ revisits classic ‘Casablanca’ – Ayouch says film a tribute to Moroccan city

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LOS ANGELES, Dec 5, (RTRS): Nabil Ayouch is Morocco’s best-known filmmaker, having directed international hits such as “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets” (2000), “Whatever Lola Wants” (2007), “Horses” (2012).

Over recent years he has played a key role in developing the nascent Moroccan film industry including the production of a slate of over 40 Moroccan telefilms, for public broadcaster SNRT, which launched a new generation of directing and acting talent.

His 2012 pic, “Horses,” about the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombers, was sold to 40 countries by Wild Bunch and officially presented in the US by Jonathan Demme, where it was Morocco’s candidate for the foreign-language Academy Award.

However, in 2015 Ayouch became a bete noire for certain quarters of Moroccan society due to his prostitution drama, “Much Loved,” which was banned one week after the film bowed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, on account of “serious outrage to the moral values of Moroccan women.” Private court proceedings were also filed against Ayouch.

Ayouch and his main actresses were fervently attacked in the media; the lead actress was assaulted in the street, leading her to move to Paris. Critics of “Much Loved” dubbed him as a foreigner who is undermining national cultural values. Ayouch was born in Paris to a French Jewish mother, of Tunisian descent, and a Moroccan Muslim father, born in Fez, and he has lived in Morocco since the early 1990s.

He is currently completing shooting on his next project “Razzia” which was initially conceived as a sci-fi project about the gulf between the rich and poor.

Ayouch received a $500,000 grant from the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM) for this original version, penned by “Horses”’ scribe Jamal Belmahi, but as a result of the experience from “Much Loved” he decided to radically alter it and focus primarily on the human drama of the main characters.

He therefore turned down the initial grant and re-applied for CCM funding but was unsuccessful, which forced him to finance the film entirely as an international co-production.

The new script is written by Nabil Ayouch and Maryam Touzani and stars Maryam Touzani, Belgium’s Ariel Worthalter, Abdelilah Rachid, Dounia Binebine and Amine Ennaji.

Production

It is produced by Bruno Nahon Paris-based Unite de Production, and is co-produced by iAyouch’s Casablanca-based production house, Ali’N Productions, Les Films du Nouveau Monde, France 3 Cinema, and Belgium’s Artemis Productions.

It has also received funding from Eurimages, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation’s Film Centre, Belgian tax rebates and SofitvCine 4, and has been pre-sold to Canal Plus, OCS, RTBF, BeTV and Voo.

Lensed in Casablanca, Ouarzazate and the Atlas mountains, “Razzia” depicts five separate stories, one set in the 1980s in the Atlas mountains and the others in present day Casablanca.

One of the recurring themes in the film is a reference to the 1942 classic “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, which is ironically one of Morocco’s best-known symbols, even though it was shot entirely in Hollwood during WWII.

“In both films, people are fighting against an ideology,” says Ayouch. “They’re fighting against the Nazis in ‘Casablanca’ and in my film they are also trying to resist. The analogy is very clear.”

One of the key themes that links together the five stories is intolerance, ignorance of others and the refusal to accept differences, which Ayouch views as a growing sentiment in Morocco.

“The film is about people in search of freedom, and the right to speak their minds, act freely, and talk about the issues that matter to them. In particular the right of women to achieve this — since I think it’s getting more and more difficult for women to be free in modern Morocco.”

The social issues contained in the earlier versions of the project are still very present, but it is less about the gulf between rich and poor and more about issues of freedom of speech, that affect all tiers of Moroccan society, and the tendency for one section of society to feel contempt for another and become increasingly less tolerant.

“These are dangerous times throughout the world,” says Ayouch. “We have seen this with the election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of the far right in Hungary, Austria and France. Demagogy is leading in a new way, and there’s a new form of cultural hegemony — we’re seeing similar trends in the Arab world.”

Ayouch conceives the film, in part, as a tribute to the city of “Casablanca,” and explores the links with the no man’s land depicted in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic pic.

“My film will be a tribute but also a way of taking back what is ours,” says the director. “Casablanca was shot completely in LA and shows nothing of the true city, but even some locals in Casablanca are convinced that their streets hosted the original production.”

The pic includes images from the 1942 film and its soundtrack includes the iconic song, “As Times Go By.” One of the characters is convinced that the Bogart tearjerker was shot in his neighborhood when he was a young man. Alongside the references to “Casablanca,” other cult references that feature in the film include the pop group “Queen” and the late Freddy Mercury who personified the spirit of freedom that Ayouch wants to explore in the film. The soundtrack includes “We are the Champions,” “The Show Must Go On,” and “I Want to Break Free.”

The zones of modern-day Casablanca depicted in the film include the old medina and poor neighborhoods, where two of the characters live, walled condominiums in the “rich ghettoes” and also Casablanca’s famous art deco buildings. Ayouch considers that the city’s art deco architecture is part of the appeal of the 1942 pic and he wanted to bring the real Casablanca into homes around the world.

Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away earlier this year, was celebrated at the Marrakech Film Festival during a moving hommage hosted by his son, Ahmad Kiarostami, on Saturday evening.

Speaking about his father’s uncompromising love of life, Kiarostami told Marrakech audiences that someone once asked his dad what he would chose between living without his work or his work existing without him. “He said he’d choose his own existence over his films. That’s how much he loved his life,” said Ahmad Kiarostami.

“Now he’s gone but he is with us with his films, his photography, his poetry, and hundreds of people he has trained in his master classes all around the world, and I see all these different events and tributes around the world, and all of you are here, as a continuation of his presence,” said the director’s son.

“When he came, he came, when he was there, he was there, when he left, he was there,’” said Ahmad Kiarostami, reading one of his father’s poems.

The speech drew a long ovation and was followed by the screening of Kiarostami’s black-and-white wordless short film “Take Me Home,” which he lensed in Southern Italy.

Kiarostami headed Marrakech Film Festival’s jury in 2009, having already co-directed a workshop with Martin Scorsese. and returned last year to deliver a master class.

Credited for giving Iranian cinema an international profile and paving the way for other filmmakers in Iran and elsewhere with his poetry-filled, singular movies, Kiarostami died at age 76 in July.

Closed

Although the media attributed Kiarostami’s death to a cancer, the director’s closed ones said he died of a stroke, four months after getting a surgery at a Tehran hospital.

At the time of his death, Kiarostami was developing “24 Frames,” an experimental film based on 24 four-and-a-half minute films that he had been directing over the last three years.

Shortage of screens and low attendances plague the nascent film industries throughout the Maghreb region. Morocco is no exception.

Prior to mass penetration of television in Moroccan households, cinema-going was a national pastime in the kingdom, with over 48 million admissions in 1980. By 1989, this figure had dropped to 31 million, 12.5 million in 1999, and 1.64 million in 2014.

A small sign for hope was recorded in 2015 with admissions increasing by 12% – to 1.84 million.

Statistics for the first nine months of 2016 — 982,648 admissions — suggest that the final result for the year may be lower than that recorded in 2014, in part due to underperformance of local films, which have occupied around half of the Top Ten box-office slots in recent years, but have only clocked up two in the Top Ten this year.

If the continued downward trend is confirmed in 2016, it will be a major disappointment for both public and private-sector initiatives committed to refurbishing existing screens and building new multiplexes.

The leading Moroccan exhibitor, French-Moroccan group Megarama, that has a 58% local market share, has been investing in new complexes. Over the last 12 months, Megarama has expanded its operations, complementing its 14-screener in Casablanca and a nine-plex in Marrakech, with a three-screener in Fez and a recently-opened eight-screen venue, with 1,000 seats, in the international port city of Tangiers.

In the coming months, Megarama also plans to open an 11-screen complex, with 1,400 seats, in Rabat – Morocco’s capital. The project was initially planned to open in February this year but has been delayed.

Megarama’s CEO, Jean-Pierre Lemoine, believes that the market continues to be extremely fragile, in part due to the 20% sales tax on cinema tickets and rampant Internet piracy.

“Attendances continue to fall, notwithstanding our major investments in new complexes and the refurbishment of our existing screens including Laser Barco projection in our three largest screens, which are over 25 meters wide,” Lemoine revealed. “The results from our new multiplex in Tangier have been very modest. One of our screens in Casablanca is running at a loss.”

Sarim Fassi Fihri, president of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM) has been in negotiations with other exhibition chains, including Pathe, to set up more multiplexes in Morocco, but progress is slow.

Initiative

The main initiative launched by the CCM in 2016 has been to provide $0.5 million in funding to refurbish four national screens — the Colisee in Marrakech, the Eden Club A and B, in Casablanca and El Kifah in Rabat.

These screens are dilapidated picture palaces located in the city centers, which Fassi Fihri said have been purchased by the local councils and will now undergo major refurbishment initiatives.

In addition to normal commercial sessions, such venues are also used to host other events — for example the Colisee is one of the venues of the Marrakech Film Festival.

2015 provided an unexpected upturn in total national admissions but when the final statistics for 2016 are confirmed it seems likely they will be below 2014 levels, suggesting that 2015 was only a temporary blip.

The CCM aims to pursue further refurbishment initiatives over the coming years, but the key to reversing Morocco’s admissions slide continues to be the opening of further multiplexes and increased attraction of local audiences, which the recent past has shown is significantly leveraged by the success of local films.

With major films due to bow from local Moroccan helmers, such as Nabil Ayouch, Noureddine Lakhmari, Faouzi Bensaidi, Leila Kilani and Narjiss Nejjar, 2017 may nonetheless be cause for optimism.

 

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