I would like to say that I’m a cinema fan, but I leave that to my sisters who are steeped in the craft and have well-defined perspectives that make for great family conversations, including our in-laws. There is so much to enjoy in cinema today. The diversity, quality, and sometimes quirkiness of foreign films in particular make them quite engaging.
I can remember my university days when I was first exposed to films that had to have subtitles…strange experience for a small town teen from Western Pennsylvania. Today, international films have become a staple of film festivals all over the US, no longer confined to college campuses or arts cinemas. It’s hard not to find films that satisfy, even if you’re not a critic or film buff. And, as I am learning, Moroccan films are among the best in Africa and the larger region.
The Middle East and North Africa were hotbeds of sophisticated (non-Bollywood genre) productions beginning in the 60s, with Lebanon leading the way to rival Egypt. It produced only a small number each year, but it became a center for film study, and today, six universities have cinema arts programs which trained many of the professionals who went on to start film centers in the Gulf. Most of the Arab film community today got their training in France or Lebanon.
As Wikipedia points out, “Films from Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestine, Syria and Tunisia are making wider and more frequent rounds than ever before in local film festivals and repertoire theaters.” In Washington, DC, where I live, there are at least three annual film festivals hosting Arab cinema productions and all are well attended.
So when a friend at Goucher College let me know that one of its professors, Dr. Florence (Flo) Martin was participating in a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) (UK) grant to “analyze the rise of Moroccan cinema over the last two decades from relative obscurity to a position where it is arguably now amongst the most important national cinemas within Africa and the Arab world, ” I was intrigued.
So I set out to find out how someone from France, a Professor of French and Francophone Cinema and Literature from Goucher College iin nearby Baltimore, MD, became part of a film project in the UK. So I contacted Dr. Martin, Flo, to find out about the project and her own interest in Morocco. She said that she came from Paris to Goucher where she had worked previously as a French assistant and instructor both at Goucher and at Randolph-Macon College. She created a Study Abroad Program in Paris for Randolph-Macon, which she directed for several years as she was completing her PhD dissertation.
Dr. Martin then spent a year at the University of Exeter (UK) directing Goucher College’s Study Abroad Program at the school, writing about Maghrebi cinema, and teaching French and Francophone Cinema Studies at Exeter. While there, she met Professor Will Higbee, Professor of Film Studies and French, who has a particular interest in immigrant, transnational, and diasporic cinemas, and has written several seminal books on North African cinema. Professor Higbee recruited Dr. Martin as his senior investigator for the AHRC grant.
On a Role
By this time, she has already written a paean to Bessie Smith followed by several articles and books on women in North Africa cinema, focusing on how their “revolutionary voices” were given new outlets by film. According to the AHRC website, “The project aims to explore the critical and commercial success of Moroccan cinema through a transnational lens, analyzing the global reach of this ‘small’ national cinema…The project places a strong emphasis on collaboration with filmmakers, festivals, policy makers and other industry figures and has partnerships with ESAV (Marrakech), the London Film School and The Africa in Motion Film Festival (Edinburgh),”
Part of the project involves bringing together diverse players in film at a symposium at the Marrakech International Film Festival in December. Cinema professionals, critics, academics, and policy-makers will gather to exchange ideas that contribute to a deeper understanding of the project’s themes. As a prelude to the symposium, there was a competition for young filmmakers to submit two short films representative of their work. From 60 entries, two filmmakers will be chosen to spend a semester at the London School of Film Studies, where they will undertake collaborative work with others and become part of the School’s international network.
[A commercial interruption – The Marrakech festival, (FIFM) – was started in 2000 and has become one of the most prestigious events on the continent and Europe, drawing talent, directors, producers, critics, and film lovers from around the world. It is held every December.]
Dr. Martin describes Moroccan filmmakers as “agile,” able to collaborate with others in many countries to produce their films. And she believes that Moroccan cinema is currently “trying to figure out where it’s going.” It is “unique in that it speaks to global audiences and those at home in ways that are no longer encoded but are more direct and open, which is what caused the uproar over the Moroccan film ‘Much Loved.’ It was too raw, too direct for some.” [If you don’t know, the film was banned before it even made it into Morocco. It deals with the life of a prostitutes in Marrakech – read about it here.] She also listed “Adios Carmen,” which recounts in the Amazigh language the history of Tangier and northern Morocco, as emblematic of the new films that speak directly to audiences.
Earlier this year, Flo spent several months in Tangier working on her new book about Farida Benlyazid, an icon among filmmakers in Morocco, who introduced her to many young film aspirants who provided Dr. Martin with their perceptions of their craft and their country. Not one to slow down, Flo is already planning for the next steps after the symposium in Marrakech; after all, the grant is only for three years! Given her prodigious output so far, this project will define for quite some time the regional and transnational impact of Moroccan cinema.
Bill Murray at 15th Marrakech International Film Festival image from sg.entertainment.yahoo.com