A Moroccan Cinema of Proximity

Pamela Nice

Beyond Casablanca : M.A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema 

By Kevin Dwyer 
Indiana University Press, 2004, 433 pp. 

Anyone interested in third world cinema, Moroccan film or M.A. Tazi’s career will find anthropologists Kevin Dwyer’s new book not only engaging but highly informative. Dwyer’s extended interview with renowned Moroccan filmmaker Muhammad Abderrahman Tazi is put in the context of Morocco’s recent cultural history. Four of Tazi’s feature films are analyzed for their themes and narrative structures, illustrated with stills from the productions. The book skillfully weaves together this analysis with Tazi’s experience producing the films; and through this process, we are given a personalized history of the economic and institutional development of Moroccan national cinema. 

Dwyer chose Tazi as the focus of his study because Tazi’s film, “Looking for My Wife’s Husband,” was the most popular film of the mid-1990s, a time when the Moroccan public’s interest in national films reached a turning point. Since that time, the audience for Moroccan films has increased to the extent that, in 2002, the annual theatre attendance at Moroccan films was 7.6 percent, even though Moroccan films constituted only 2 percent of total films shown.

Tazi also serves as a paradigmatic model of the Moroccan filmmaker, since his career so closely follows the development of Moroccan cinema since independence in 1956. Though he has made only five feature films over 25 years, this makes him highly prolific among his peers. Like many of his and the younger generation of Moroccan filmmakers, he trained outside of Morocco, in Europe and the U.S., developing his skills on foreign films produced in Morocco; has experimented with European co-production; and believes that Moroccan film should be one of “proximity” – using stories from Moroccan culture, with a narrative style and humor particular to that culture. In addition, Tazi’s films have won several international awards, and he has risen to a position of prominence in Morocco, including a stint as director of film production for 2M, the second Moroccan television station.
The chapters on the films raise particularly interesting issues, especially from Dwyer’s anthropological perspective. In the film “Badis,” filmed in the actual town of Badis in Morocco, Tazi tells the story of two women oppressed by village life who rebel against their treatment, and in the end of the film are punished by the villagers with a fatal stoning. As in many Moroccan films, townspeople played the roles of extras, and Tazi made concerted attempts to involve them in the filmmaking process, which included inviting them to a private screening before the opening. Not surprisingly, when some of the townspeople viewed the film, they were upset, because they felt their community’s privacy had been violated. Dwyer discusses with Tazi why he chose to keep the real name of the town in his film, which would inevitably raise the “anthropological problem of how to ‘represent’ living human communities.” 

...he [Tazi] also sees the downside of the increasing presence of American filmmaking in Morocco: not only do these productions leech away technical expertise needed on indigenous films, but they encourage locals to charge Moroccan productions the same fees for location shooting that the Americans pay.

Dwyer also concentrates on Tazi’s depiction of women’s issues in his films, his recurring theme of clandestine emigration, a growing problem in economically-challenged Morocco, his attitude toward censorship and cultural standards of decency, and Tazi’s views on the self-Orientalizing of his culture.

It becomes evident early on that Tazi’s metaphor of the Moroccan filmmaker as bumblebee seems particularly apt: “...according to the laws of aeronautics, it’s impossible for that insect to fly. But bumblebees fly just the same! That’s the way it is for our cinema...we can’t make films but, just the same, we make films!” A Moroccan film typically takes 3-4 years to make. Though the state funds films through the Aid Fund, Dwyer points out that “of the approximately 120 feature film proposals submitted to the Aid Fund between 1998 and 1999, about 50 were accepted . . . . The sums offered were between one million and three and a half million dirhams, usually amounting to less than half the film’s budget.” The director is largely responsible for acquiring the additional funds necessary, so he spends much time on this non-artistic activity. Filming often takes place on location, in communities naive to the filmmaking process, which can increase inefficiency.

There are additional challenges faced by Moroccan filmmakers within the global context: “exhibition and distribution . . . are in private hands, . . . [D]istributors prefer, on purely economic grounds, to promote cheaper imports rather than national films costing more to rent, and . . . consequently, national films are rarely profitable and funds for production must therefore come from other than commercial capital investment.” Globalization and free trade agreements have conspired to keep national cinemas of the third world, in particular, in a precarious situation, since both favor large-scale metropolitan producers.

And though Tazi clearly has benefited from working on foreign productions in Morocco, gaining technical expertise and refining his cinematographic skill, he also sees the down side of the increasing presence of American filmmaking in Morocco: not only do these productions leech away technical expertise needed on indigenous films, but they encourage locals to charge Moroccan productions the same fees for location shooting that the Americans pay.

In spite of these challenges, Dwyer has a positive perspective on the creativity and perseverance of Morocco’s filmmakers. In his final chapter, he also offers suggestions for ongoing development of Morocco’s film sector: continued co-production with television stations; a clear policy on distribution and exhibition of Moroccan films in the national theatres; the development of the producer’s role; attention to copyright issues for filmmakers; and increased funding by the Aid Fund. A desirable goal would be the production of 10 films per year in the near future. 

Dwyer’s book has a very helpful notes section, offering political, social and historical context for Moroccan cinema; a detailed table of contents, that allows readers to pick their topics of interest; and a comparative chronology, tying together Tazi’s life and career with developments in Moroccan cinema and culture and with political developments in the Maghreb. This clearly written book, which so skillfully sets a Moroccan filmmaker’s career in the context of his culture and his art, could serve as a text for film and/or anthropology courses, in addition to entertaining the general reading public. 

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 49 
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid 

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