The Moroccan Government has heavily promoted Moroccan locations and the film industry has grown to the extent that it is possible to do tours of movie sets and studios. Things have come a long way since the likes of Casablanca (which is just about to celebrate its 70th birthday!), Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much of 1956 (you can eat in the palace where it was filmed in Marrakech) or Orson Welles’ 1952 classic interpretation of Othello. IMDb lists 766 films and TV episodes filmed in Morocco and it feels like every other Moroccan you meet has been an extra or crew on Hollywood blockbusters.
On a wave of globalisation, out-sourcing and the desire for more exotic/more versatile sets, the Atlas Studios in Ourzarzate has become one of the biggest in the world in terms of acreage. Recall the last film you saw set in a desert, in a bleak sci-fi moonscape, or in Roman or Biblical times, and there’s a good chance it was filmed in Morocco. Examples include Star Wars, The Mummy series, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. The last two were filmed by Ridley Scott at the ksar (fortified city) of Ait Benhaddou, where he had even filmed Black Hawk Down. Moroccan locations have doubled as Tibet (in Scorsese’s Kundun), Egypt (in The Jewel of the Nile and The Mummy) and the Arabian peninsula (in The Message, Lawrence of Arabia, various Biblical dramas and – more recently – Sex and the City II).
Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is impressive but my enduring memory of visiting the Ouarzarzate area is of driving around a corner in a bus and glimpsing a village to my right which I instantly recognized as Tazarine from the 2006 film, Babel (although I don’t know if that is this village’s real name).
I watched Babel again recently. Unlike many of the titles I mention above, it gives some pretty accurate insights into Moroccan life: the small agricultural communities struggling to meet ends meet, cut off from modern services and the opportunities which tourism offers to those with appropriate education to escape into the cities.
Above all, I was struck again by the simplicity of this life and the willingness of these people with so little to help those who are usually far more fortunate. This hospitality was my overriding memory of my first trip to Morocco in 2001. Another film I really enjoyed which is set in Morocco (as opposed to just being filmed there) is Hideous Kinky, although the Morocco it describes – of the early 70s – is pretty hard to find these days.
Excellent insights into the complexities of modern life in Morocco are offered by domestic film-makers. The home grown industry is developing slowly. The 2008 film Casanegra, about small time hustlers in the city made famous by Bogart and Bacall, was as feted as it was controversial. At the time, it was seen as a turning point for the domestic industry. But cinema attendance in Morocco is low and the industry is heavily subsidized – DVD copies of Hollywood blockbusters are available on every street corner for less than the equivalent of one night’s rental in Europe.
In the mid-2000s there was much bemoaning the stereotypes projected even by domestic film-makers in the Maghreb. Encouragingly, however, the themes of the late 1990s/early 2000s (in some part determined by the need to pitch for European co-funding and therefore find a subject of interest to audiences in the EU) of human rights, clandestine migration and exile, have given way to a more varied reflection of various aspects of social, political, economic and cultural life within Morocco as the industry has developed in its own right. The increasing challenges to traditional roles, governance and lifestyles typical of the Arab Spring will undoubtedly fuel further creativity and diversity in the North African cinema.
It’s not easy to find Moroccan films outside the country other than at specialist festivals. However, here some which I have seen and enjoyed (all of which – coincidentally – heavily feature Casablanca).
- Ali Zoua (2000) – Nabil Ayouch – a gritty tale of life on the streets of Casablanca about the street kids who live around the docks, punctuating their grim reality with glue sniffing, small crime and dangerous dares.
- WWW: What a Wonderful World (2006) – Faouzi Bensaïdi – this film feels very French (ie ‘arty’) with its challenging continual branching off of sub-plots which didn’t always have an obvious link to the main story of criminal+cop love interest. You could say that it was all a bit chaotic, trying to pass too many familiar North African messages (exile, poverty, scraping by, the internet age, economic migration, corruption, Islam, etc) in one film. Or you could argue that in a chaotic society in a chaotic city (Casablanca), that’s the only way to tell any story.
- Heaven’s Doors (2006)– Swel and Imad Noury – the Spain-based Noury brothers’ first feature film (made for a remarkable $180,000) uses three main storylines to capture the complexities and frustrations of life in Casablanca and the daily choices young men make to support themselves and their families: between trying to earn an honest crust, turning to petty criminality or trying their luck on the other side of the Straits.
– Laila Marrakchi – although this film was the most commercially successful film in Morocco in 2006, it is a vapid depiction of how the other half lives. The main plotline – an Arab Muslim girl falling in love with her Jewish classmate – is scarcely developed in favour of a concentration on fast cars and product placement. This might be novel to a Moroccan audience, but it didn’t impress me.