UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
Through North African Eyes
By Lynn Teo Simarski
ARAMCO WORLD January/February 1992
A new indigenous cinema full of beauty and vitality is emerging in North Africa, placing Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco on the cutting edge of film in the Arab world.
The pioneer filmmakers of the Maghrib, as this region is
known, are aiming to express, above all, the social realities of
their nations-in contrast to the past, when the region served only
as an exotic locale for Western films that ignored local culture.
Many of the new wave of directors believe that their highly
original films, with their universal themes, can also speak
compellingly to audiences abroad.
Until now, the films of the Maghrib-as with Arab cinemas
generally-have been largely relegated to what film critic Hala
Salmane calls "the festival ghetto" in the United States, unable to
penetrate the mainstream of America's Hollywood-dominated industry.
In any case, over the past year or so, American viewers have been
treated to glimpses of the new cinema at the Arab Film Festival in
Seattle (July, 1990), the Algerian Cinema Festival in Boston, Los
Angeles, and New York (Spring, 1991), and Filmfest D.C. in
Washington (May, 1991). A number of directors, producers, and
critics who gathered in Washington during the festival describe the
Maghribi films as a break with the melodrama and musical genres of
Egyptian cinema that have dominated Arab screens in this century.
The first modern film studios in the Arab world were set up in
Egypt in 1935, soon turning Cairo into what Miriam Rosen, Paris
film critic and curator of Filmfest D.C.'s Maghrib series calls
"Hollywood on the Nile." Egyptian cinema became a "dream factory,"
Rosen says. Its fare of farce, melodrama and bellydance enabled
viewers to forget reality. Commercial cinema in India and other
developing nations followed a pattern similar to Egypt's, according
to film critic Roy Armes. "Created for a mass audience and
apparently fulfilling no more than an entertainment function, these
films are the cause of great unease on the part of Third World
critics and filmmakers, even-and perhaps especially-those concerned
to define and promote a "national cinema," he observes.
"For us, Egyptian cinema plays the same role that Hollywood
does for the independent filmmakers of New York," says Ferid
Boughedir, well-known Tunisian film critic and director.(See page
34.) "We are the new wave, starting in the Maghrib and spreading to
Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, fighting against escape cinema that
has nothing to do with the reality of the Arab world. For us in
the Maghrib, it is easier to make good films than it is for young
Egyptians: There are no dictates from the industry to tell you
what to do."
"But our problems," continues Boughedir, "is, for whom we are
making the films-for the West or for our home audience? It's very
easy to make exotic films for the West, but the real test for us
is, does our local audience recognize itself in the film?"
Moroccan director Mohammed Abderrahman Tazi adds, "I make films for
my particular public, and if they go beyond that, so much the
Even in Egyptian cinema, however, some early visionaries
sought to abandon fantasy for serious subjects. Director Kemal
Selim's "The Will" (1939) is generally recognized as the first
Egyptian film to depict social reality, and others followed.
"To be fair," says Boughedir, "there were several very
courageous Egyptian filmmakers who were our fathers-such as Yusef
Shahine, Henri Barakat and others-who even inside the industry
tried to use the stars to make films showing reality at that
moment. They gave us in the Maghrib the strength to make a cinema
The new North African films break with Egyptian tradition not
only thematically but stylistically too. "Egyptian cinema is based
on the voice, like radio," says Boughedir. "Sometimes you can
close your eyes and continue understanding the action. Maghribi
cinema gives priority to the image."
The sampling of Maghribi work by both male and female
directors at Washington's Filmfest displayed an astonishing breadth
of vision and form, from documentaries to harsh social commentary,
from mystical fairy tales to hilarious and sensual features.
Maghribi production since independence has exceeded that of
all the rest of the Arab world except Egypt. Rosen distinguishes
at least a dozen singular directors who have arisen in the Maghrib
during the past decade. Economic realities, which often force
filmmakers to seek their own financing, have much to do with
spawning markedly individualistic creations.
"A distinction must be made between the films of the Maghrib
by individual artists and the commercial film industries of India,
Turkey and Egypt," says Moroccan screenwriter and director Farida
Benlyazid. "No producer will put his money into something
unprofitable, so artists must seek their own financing. In a
sense, this liberates them-they don't have to worry about the
market." Rosen agrees: "The main goal of the cinema is not just
cheap entertainment; the resources are just too precious."
"We're talking about a craft rather than an industry," says
Tazi, the Moroccan director. Explains another director and
producer, Tunisian Ahmed Attia, "A film requires the mobilization
of a crew and a lot of money, yet North African receipts cover only
25 percent of a low-budget production." Maghribi filmmakers became
accustomed to the necessity of sacrificing in order to realize
their visions. " A few years ago it was called the young cinema,
but look at! We're not so young anymore," he laughs. "We have
families, responsibilities. We have to be realistic and go beyond
the stage of a craft to an industry." Attia has attempted to do
this himself by seeking a number of small backers for his films
instead of one large backer who might usurp his ideas.
The Maghrib has some 800 film theaters in a population of
about 60 million, yet directors and critics alike decry the lack of
a local market, which is flooded with foreign films. According to
Rosen, Algeria imported 140 films in 1987, Tunisia imported 165,
and Morocco imported 362 films in 1986. Television has also
drained away theater audiences, the directors complain.
Each of the three countries presents a distinctive climate for
its filmmakers. In Algeria a state monopoly controls the industry,
Tunisia is a mix of public and private, and in Morocco filmmaking
is almost elusively in the private sector.
Of the three, Algerian film is best known in the West, yet
"only it has the luxury of existing for its own market," says Neil
Hollander, a film distributor who lives in Paris. "The same
organization that produces Algerian films also controls the number
of Western films shown in Algeria, so there is a kind of coherent
balance that does not exist in the other countries."
Algeria already had a modern cinema by the mid-1960s.
Algerian cinema was born out of, and served the war of
independence, "which explains its obsession with that war," writes
critic Hala Salmane. Centralized control of the industry
contributed to creating "cinema moudjahid," as it was called, that
deals with the Algerian rebellion against the French occupation.
The famous Italian-Algerian "Battle of Algiers" is the best-known
work of this period. But critics, filmmakers, and audiences
eventually rebelled against this monolithic focus, arguing that it
"was serving to mask the problems of the day," Salmane observes.
The agrarian changes of 1971 ushered in a new genre of
Algerian films that focused on agriculture. Since the late 1970s,
these in turn have been supplanted by films dealing with more
diverse topics-urban alienation, bureaucratic fumbling and the
changing role of women. "They explore with beauty, and at times
with controversy, contemporary issues facing Algerian society,"
says Alia Arasoughly, director of the recent Algerian festival in
the United States. Reflecting on what distinguishes Algerian films
from the rest of the Maghrib's, Rosen says, "To me Algerian cinema
is the harshest-there's an austerity in the vision that I can't
separate from the country's history, which is also, in a way, the
Director Belkacem Hadjaj's "The Drop"(1982/1989), screened at
Filmfest D.C., presents an eerie and idiosyncratic look, almost
documentation in detail, at the plight of rural migrants who build
housing in which they cannot afford to live. To a jarring score of
grinding tractor gears and hammering, the migrants are shown as
milked by the malevolent city-symbolically, at the end of the day,
even their sweat is collected, drop by drop, in an urn.
Another Filmfest screening from Algeria, Mohamed Rachid
Benhadj's "Desert Rose" (1989), tells the far more intimate, yet
unsentimental, story of Mousa, a young, severely handicapped man
who fights to overcome his own infirmities in his search for love
and a place in society in a remote oasis village. The film is rich
in unforgettable detail, expressed in images or sound rather than
words. The metallic bubbling of water in a kettle as Mousa makes
tea defines domestic comfort in an isolated village home. The
matter-of-fact prostration of a neighbor who offers his back as a
step to help Mousa climb aboard a donkey demonstrates the
community's warmth. The sad face of a young bride in a camel
litter leaving her home for her husband's mirrors Mousa's grief at
Mousa's careful tending of a tiny rose on a distant dune says
Benhadj, "is a symbol of Algeria, of the Third World in general,
formed by rigid beliefs and intolerance, but now having to redefine
itself as all the alibis on which its place in the world depended
begin to fall away."
Hollander, the film's Western distributor, believes that
"Desert Rose" represents the coming-of-age of Algerian cinema.
"The intent is to deal with a universal theme rather than a
Maghribi problem," he says. "The film moves beyond reacting
against things and presents world-class cinema dealing with human
Tunisian cinema, which was challenging Algeria for
international acclaim by the 1980s, began in the 1920s with films
by Albert Sammama-Chickly. In contrast to those of its neighbor,
Tunisia's films rarely focused on the struggle for liberation. The
country's biannual Carthage International Film Days, founded in
1966, is the oldest international festival for films from the
Tunisian Nacer Khemir's "The Dove's Lost Necklace"(1990),
screened in Washington, also typifies the exquisite detail with
which many Maghribi filmmakers technical refinement. Khemir
employs a fairy-tale facade, a technique also used in his earlier
film, "Searchers of the Desert"(1984), to follow a young
calligrapher's apprentice. Hassan, on his increasingly fantastical
search for the meaning of love. Among the film's poetic images,
which sparkle like gems, are the master calligrapher's jasmine-
scented ink, a pomegranate inscribed with 60 Arabic names for love
and a chess game between distant partners who communicate their
moves by carrier pigeon. But this city of order and refinement is
threatened by murmuring barbarians who gather ominously outside the
The film's dreamlike aura is enhanced by the fact that it is
not anchored in time, explains producer Hassen Daldoul, but occurs
somewhere between the 9th and 15th centuries, during Islam's golden
age. Not only Hassan but almost everyone else in the film as well
is on a quest-the captivating little Zin is seeking a monkey he
believes is prince, and the calligraphy master journeys away in
search is the patron who requisitioned a finely-embellished Qur'an.
The motif of incessant searching is a metaphor for a people and a
nation whose history and spirituality are slipping away, Daldoul
Another short but superb Tunisian film also shown in
Washington, Moncefs Dhoubib's "The Trance"(1989), echoes Khemir's
work in its use of the irrational and the mystical as a doorway to
fuller meaning. A man trapped in a tomb is beset by visions that
destroy his Western facade and force him to confront the deeper
realities of his own culture. The film's traditional setting and
motifs make it a decidedly indigenous parable.
Morocco, the third country contributing to the Maghrib's new
generation of cinema, has produced fewer films to date than its
neighbors, even though it boasts good production facilities and
several times the number if theaters in Tunisia. "Possibilities
were much more limited in Morocco because of a lack of both public
and private funding," explains Rosen. Director Tazi is more blunt.
"The system could be described as 'the law of the jungle,'" he
says. "There is no legislation to protect local films against
Tazi's haunting tragedy, "Badis"(1989), screened in Washington
and Seattle, exemplifies what Rosen describes as the "intimacy and
visual refinement" of Moroccan films. The action takes place in a
remote coastal town that is loomed over, literally and
figuratively, by a Spanish enclave garrison housing prisoners of
Generalissimo Franco's regime. Each day, a Spanish soldier sets
out to the village well to fetch water for the enclave, where he
secretly meets and falls in love with a local fisherman's daughter.
Meanwhile, a schoolteacher from Casablanca has moved to the village
along with his wife. Friendship grows naturally between the wife
and the village society. Inevitably, they are caught, and stoned
for their transgressions. "There are few sounds, few words in
'Badis,'" observes Rosen. "It is the images that speak, that cry
out the violence and intolerance."
Paradoxically, it is an old woman who throws the first stone
in the final scene. As Tazi explains, "It was not to kill that the
old woman did this, but to stop the spectacle. Women are the
guardians of tradition; the men were shocked, mesmerized, so the
woman in a sense acted to protect the young women."
"It is astonishing, " says Banlyazid, one of the three female
directors in Morocco and co-writer of "Badis," but all the male
filmmakers are preoccupied with the situation of women." Still,
she believes Tazi stereotyped women as victims in his film. "I'm
happy he's talking about women. . .still, it's a more subtle,
nuanced truth than that," she says. "Women have more strength than
he shows them as having."
The new cinema indeed displays a fascination with the lives of
women. Another Tunisian director, Abellatif Ben Ammar, whose
"Aziza"(1982) was shown at the Seattle festival, told an
interviewer, "Women are the alternative. Victims yesterday, and
still sometimes so today, tomorrow they will be pushing forward a
Women live in a gentler, more intimate world than men in
Boughedir's "Halfaouine." "I admire the genius of woman," the
director told National Public Radio in Washington. "She always
finds a way to transcend the taboos, to find spaces of happiness
and joy that man doesn't have."
Female director Benlyazid's own first film, "A Door to the
Sky"(1988), presents a decidedly different version of a woman's
search for meaning, in the context of Islam. The resonance in the
United States of "Door's" vision was demonstrated by the overflow
crowds attracted by the film in Washington, and its warm reception
in Seattle was epitomized by a woman who told Benlyazid that it was
the most beautiful film she had ever seen. The story begins as
Nadia, a young Moroccan, returns from France for her father's
funeral. Rediscovering her spiritual heritage trough an older,
devout woman, Nadia forsakes her French boyfriend and eventually
turns the old family home into a zawiyah or hospice for needy
women, filling it with a loving community. Benlyazid, who herself
studied filmmaking in Paris and personally exudes the same calm
transcendence as her film, believes her work expresses the "double
culture" within which an entire generation is forging its identity.
As for being a woman director in the Arab world, a topic she
is often asked about in the West, Benlyazid says that women
confront the same obstacles as men. "Filmmaking isn't looked up to
as a profession," she explains. "One is supposed to be productive,
and filmmaking doesn't have the prestige or money-but that's the
same for women as for men."
Even while they draw inspiration from their roots and seek to
reach a local audience, many directors believe their films can
cross international borders. Tazi points to the Turkish film
"Yol," which made modest inroads into the American commercial
market. Given the same promotion, he believes, a Maghribi film
could succeed just as well. But in Hollander's experience, "here
in the United States, film is to entertain, not to educate. In
Europe we had more success in distributing 'Desert Rose' because
film still has a cultural and educational function there."
"Maghribi films are actually received better in the US than in
Europe," counters Benlyazid. "Europeans think they know North
African and Muslim society, so they come with all sorts of
prejudices, whereas Americans are more open. I think these films
can make it in the West-the settings are foreign but at their
center are universal human relations."
"One reason I think 'Door to the Sky' has been received well
is that it's a spiritual film," she continues. "It's not about the
sort of militant Islam that people expect to see, but the way Islam
As Maghribi's directors begin to probe beyond economic and
political frontiers, North African cinema is clearly ripening into
a genre of significance. "Algerian cinema was the best in the
1970s, but in the 1980s and 1990s, Tunisian films are getting the
most prizes all over the world," says Boughedir. "Freedom and
modernization have helped us to make the best cinema in the Arab
world, for the moment. Maybe in the 1990s, Syria or another
country will do better. We are fighting the cliches the West holds
about fanatics and fundamentalists-we are fighting to show the
reality of in the United States, American filmgoers will surely be
captivated by the honesty and power of images defined by North
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