In Egypt, crowds have again taken to the streets of Cairo; Syria’s civil war grinds bloodily on; Libya struggles to contain its militias. Morocco remains stable, its monarchy buffeted by the Arab Spring but still intact, and this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival (FIFM), which ended last weekend, boasted all the red carpet opulence one associates with less troubled regions. Yet amid the prize-giving and the mutual back-slapping, it was clear that the country’s film-makers are asking some hard questions.
For the first time in the festival’s 12-year history, two films by Moroccan directors were selected for the 15-feature competition: Nabil Ayouch’s gritty Horses of God – about the nightmarish events leading up to the May 2003 Casablanca suicide bombings, in which 45 people died – and Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s noirish Zero – another Casablanca-set movie about a low-life cop uncovering a child prostitution ring. (In previous years, Moroccan film-makers have mustered no more than one entry.)
Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri scooped the competition’s top prize, the Etoile d’Or, for The Attack, a well-balanced, unavoidably controversial adaptation of Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s novel about a Palestinian doctor working in Israel who is horrified to discover that his wife has killed herself in a suicide bombing.
The willingness of these three directors to grapple with sensitive issues was lauded by the festival’s vice-president Noureddine Sail, also head of Morocco’s national film board, the CCM. “I think it’s very important that this new generation of Arab directors confront reality,” he says. “What is interesting is how they are learning to translate these themes to the screen in ways that are aesthetically engaging.”
The common denominator linking Doueiri, Ayouch and Lakhmari is that all three had long film-making apprenticeships abroad before eventually returning to their homelands to make their first features and subsequent films.
Doueiri, who is 49, had spent several years working as Quentin Tarantino’s assistant cameraman in the US, before he returned to Lebanon to make his autobiographical debut West Beirut (1998) – a coming-of-age film about the hazards of war reminiscent of Hope and Glory (1987), which was, incidentally, directed by this year’s FIFM jury president, John Boorman.
Doueiri struggled for six years to finally bring his tinder-box adaptation of The Attack to the screen. After it received positive reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in the US this August, he had hoped that it would be Lebanon’s best foreign film entry for next year’s Oscars, but to no avail.
“When I screened it in Lebanon I spoke to one of the committee members, who said, ‘We absolutely love your film but we cannot have your film represent Lebanon because it has Israeli actors,’” Doueiri says. “Israel and Lebanon are legally in a state of war, so having a film which represents Lebanon with Israeli actors in it is out of the question.”
The son of Lebanese leftwing parents who were fervently opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Doueiri grew up with similar views. It was not until he moved to the US in 1982 and started studying film that he began to re-evaluate his opinions.
“When you take a little bit of distance, you start to understand that each side has their own narrative, that the Israelis have their own narrative – something which I grew up believing was false.”
Breaking taboos is something a new generation of Moroccan filmmakers is increasingly starting to grapple with.
“Today, I can make films about anything I want and there’s nobody who can tell me: don’t do this, don’t do that,” says Lakhmari. “The problem in Morocco is no longer political censorship, the problem is the self-censorship that directors and artists often put on themselves because of society’s pressures.”
Lakhmari, 48, studied film in Oslo and came to prominence with his 2008 film Casanegra. A tale of petty crime shot in Casablanca and partly inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, it proved challenging for local audiences, and Lakhmari was criticised for daring to let his characters speak frankly about sex and drugs.
“When I did Casanegra a lot of people hated me for doing it,” he says. “They called me a Zionist and complained that I brought Norwegian values and was too American. I just answered them, ‘So what?’. I owe it to my society to make the kind of films I do without any complex.”
His latest film features a charismatic turn from Moroccan stage actor Younès Bouab as the eponymous Zero, a brow-beaten, alcoholic cop who senses a chance of redemption when he is asked by a distraught mother to track down her abducted teenage daughter.
“I know some Moroccans will hate this film too,” says Lakhmari, “especially religious groups, because they just want to give a beautiful picture of a Muslim country. But we are more than this; we are human beings who need to ask questions.”
During Zero’s festival screening, the largely Moroccan audience that packed out the massive amphitheatre made their feelings clear. The scene where Zero makes love to a female doctor provoked muttering from one part of the audience, tittering from another and cries of “Shhhh!” from a third.
The scene that provoked the most shouts of acclaim was when Zero’s foul-mouthed father lays into the national football team for being a shadow of their former selves. Indeed, this year’s festival proved to be particularly animated thanks to a large number of free Bollywood screenings on Marrakech’s famous square, the Jemaa el-Fnaa.
A delegation of Indian actors, including megastars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, was on hand to celebrate Bollywood’s centenary. Their presence drew huge crowds of Moroccan fans, who cherish Bollywood films for their potent blend of singing, dancing and happy endings.
By stark contrast, the other Moroccan film in competition, Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God, was watched in a monastic silence. The story of how a group of impressionable young men from Sidi Moumen, a Casablanca slum, are perverted by the clarion call of Salafist jihadism sent shivers down the spine.
“What you have to remember,” says Ayouch, 43, “is that slums like Sidi Moumen have been abandoned by the state. There is no infrastructure, no culture, no theatres, no cinemas and no way of expression except violence.”
Ayouch’s film, which was screened earlier this year at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar and won the best film award at Spain’s Valladolid International Film Festival, notably tackles the subject of sexuality, and abusive homosexuality in particular.
“I think this is a main point,” says Ayouch. “I wanted to show how there is a lack of love in these young men’s lives and the impossibility of intimacy with a girl ... The sexuality is building itself differently between men, between boys, because they can’t get access to the girls and vice versa.”
In his film, an adaptation of Mahi Binebine’s novel The Stars of Sidi Moumen, Ayouch shows how seductive fundamentalism can be for young men from depressed families because it helps them to become part of a community; gradually, though, they get sucked into something they hadn’t planned on becoming part of. The process is incremental because the protagonists are not immediately confronted by the idea of becoming martyrs; rather, they enter a world where they have food on the table and people who can help family members in trouble. The film shows how subtly and insidiously it all happens.
“It is smooth because that’s the way it happens in real life,” says Ayouch. “They feel they become the centre of attention and attain importance in the eyes of others. It is something they are not used to and grow to like.”
At the screening of Horses of God, there was a poignant moment at the end when the young cast of non-professional actors, most of them from Casablanca slums such as Sidi Moumen, stood up to acknowledge the applause that rang around the auditorium. Some of them have now set their hearts on becoming actors. “I’m a bit scared about it,” says Ayouch. “But I think some of them could be successful.”
‘Zero’ is released in Morocco at the end of December; ‘Horses of God’ comes out in France on January 30; ‘The Attack’ comes out in France and the US in May, www.festivalmarrakech.info