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 cinema 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 problem," continues Boughedir, "is, for whom are we 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 Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi adds, "I make films for my particular public, and if they go beyond that, so much the better."
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 of truth."
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 works 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 us! 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 exclusively 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-1960's. 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 1970's, 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 harshest."
Director Belkacem Hadjaj's "The Drop" (1982/1989), screened at Filmfest DC, presents an eerie and idiosyncratic look, almost documentarian 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 her departure.
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 problems."
Tunisian cinema, which was challenging Algeria for international acclaim by the 1980's, began in the 1920's 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 developing world.
Tunisian Nacer Khemir's "The Dove's Lost Necklace" (1990), screened in Washington, also typifies the exquisite detail with which many Maghribi filmmakers tell their stories, but is particularly exceptional for its 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 walls.
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 a prince, and the calligraphy master journeys away in search of 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 says.
Another short but superb Tunisian film also shown in Washington, Moncef Dhouib'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 of 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 imports."
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 girl, who finally decide to flee the stifling hypocrisy of 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 of 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 Benlyazid, one of 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, Abdellatif 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 genuine renewal."
Women live in a gentler, more intimate world than men in Boughedir's "Half aouine." "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 through 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 an educational function there."
"Mahgribi 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 really is."
As Maghribi 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 1970's, but in the 1980's and 1990's, 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 1990's, 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 our countries." If Maghribi films can make it to screens in the United States, American filmgoers will surely be captivated by the honesty and power of images denned by North African eyes.
Lynn Teo Simarski is a Washington writer and editor who specializes in the Middle East.