Moroccan movie industry going to the next level

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When Nabil Ayouch's cross-cultural romantic comedy "Whatever Lola Wants" has its gala screening for the Arabian Nights section in Dubai, it will be one of the most prestigious international bows for a Moroccan director of late. "It's going to be a moment of great emotion, especially to present the film at an Arab festival," Ayouch said.

Ayouch is emblematic of the dynamic new wave of Moroccan filmmakers. In addition to writing and directing, he has produced some 30 genre films in his homeland over the past three years. "Whatever Lola Wants" is about a Brooklyn postal worker (Laura Ramsey) who follows her lover to Cairo where she learns to belly dance from a legendary but disgraced instructor. The film was fully-financed from France through Pathe, and despite its settings, was mainly shot in Morocco, with Casablanca and Rabat doubling for the Egyptian capital. "Morocco is a very good environment in which to shoot," Ayouch says.

An environment that has led to a blossoming of the local industry. "The good news is that production is doing well. We're making around 18 feature films a year now. For a small country, that's a lot. No other country in Africa except maybe Egypt makes as many films," says Nour-Eddine Sail, head of the Moroccan Cinema Center. To put this in context, Morocco was producing an average of four pictures a year a decade ago.

Ayouch says the industry's good health is down to three main factors. Firstly, local audiences have learned to like their own production. "People used to think Moroccan cinema was a drag or too artsy. That's no longer the case," says Ayouch. Closely linked to this, the second reason for the upsurge in local fortunes is the arrival of a new wave of filmmakers including Ayouch and others such as Faouzi Bensaidi, Narjiss Nejjar and Laila Marrakchi.

The third factor, undoubtedly, is the boost in state aid. "Ninety-nine% of Moroccan films are produced thanks to state aid, which is not to say they are entirely state funded," says Ayouch. The national film fund has risen incrementally in the past few years and is now around $7.5 million a year. The state-managed film fund is based on the French model. The money comes from a levy on TV network ad revenue, and is given to projects as an advance on receipts, meaning only some of it ever gets repaid.

Acclaimed Moroccan helmer Ahmed el Maanouni, whose film "Burned Hearts" screens at DIFF, recently won the Grand Prix at the National Film Festival in Tangiers. He is upbeat about the state of his native film industry. "You can plainly see that Moroccan cinema has reached a nice cruising speed in terms of production. That shows there's a certain energy. There is also a variety of themes, not just one genre of film. Moroccan cinema is characterized by the richness of themes," says el Maanouni. "But there's a lot of work to do. The next step is for our films to gain greater presence, meaning wider distribution in Morocco and abroad," he added.

For the meantime, Moroccan filmmakers can enjoy a hungry home market. "In terms of local popularity, Moroccan films are way out in front. The top four or five films have been Moroccan in the past few years," notes Sail. Despite the preference for local fare, this doesn't however translate to a dominant market share: Moroccan films only account for about a fifth of the market because of the limited number of titles. U.S. movies account for a good half the market, with Bollywood, Egyptian and European – led by French – making up the rest.

Sail notes that Moroccan movies have enjoyed considerable success on the festival circuit, but the international market is opening only very slowly. Recently "L'Enfant Endormi" (The Sleeping Child) directed by Yasmine Kassari and "WWW: What a Wonderful World" by Bensaidi enjoyed modest success in France. "There've been some in-roads in Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It seems to help if there is a Moroccan community in the country, even though the films are not aimed at this population," he says.

Sail says the Moroccan pavilion which has been part of the Cannes International Village in the past few years has worked well for his country's cinematic profile, and he's looking to expand his country's presence in international markets. "I'd like us to be present in Berlin in 2009, and also Toronto," he says.

One thing all industry players agree on is that Morocco is in dire need of new movie theaters. There are only some 90 screens today in a country with a population of around 33 million. Total cinema admissions in Morocco came to nearly 3.9 million in 2006, and the average admission price is about $3.00. "We need theaters. The existing infrastructure is old and has not been renewed," Sail said.

Two multiplexes have opened in recent years, a 15-screen complex in Casablanca, the largest city, and a 9-screen in Marrakech, but the current pace of renewal is not enough. To this end, Sail is pushing for the establishment of a public/private initiative to invest in multiplexes, with the aim of adding around 50 screens per year across major towns to bring the total to some 200.

"I think too much aid is concentrated on production and not enough on distribution. One major drag on the industry is the state of distribution, which is undermined by piracy and the poor state of movie houses," says Ayouch.

As a location for visiting shoots, Morocco continues to attract if not a flood, a steady stream of shoots ranging from European television miniseries such as TF1's "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" to major Hollywood fare like Tom Hanks starrer "Charlie Wilson's War" and the upcoming CIA Middle East thriller "Body of Lies" starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Russel Crowe. "Lies" marks the fourth time director Ridley Scott has shot in the kingdom in recent years.

But the top-flight productions have not so far done much to boost the indigenous filmmaking craft, besides keeping the local studio facilities and service companies busy. "Until now there has been no transfer of know-how from visiting shoots. We're just starting to wake up to that," says Ayouch. To make up for this gap in technical training, Morocco has begun to spawn film schools, with one in Marrakech, which has just turned out its first graduates, and another in Ouarzazate, the film studio hub on the edge of the Sahara.

For a Muslim kingdom with an authoritarian past, Morocco under King Mohammad VI – a known film fan – has adopted a surprisingly liberal attitude to cinematic subject matter. "There is almost total freedom. There are still some taboos, but I'd say that is more self-censorship than anything else," Ayouch says.

El Maanouni concurs: "There is a freedom to tackle subjects which is sufficiently rare in the Arab world to be noteworthy. But we filmmakers also have to be more daring. I'm convinced of one thing: the more we show ourselves as we truly are, the more we are universal," he says.
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