This article is based on Mostapha al-Messnaoui’s book Abhat fi Cinema al Maghribiya (Research on Moroccan Cinema, 2001). I will focus mainly on the first chapter that deals with the beginnings of Cinema in Morocco and how the French colonialism influenced it, followed by the three phases of colonial cinema in Morocco and then the extent to which Moroccan cinema could detach itself from the colonial legacy after independence.
The beginnings of Cinema in Morocco are blurred; in the sense that it is debated whether it dates back to the pre official appearance of Cinema in 1896 namely to the “detective film”: Al-Fariss al-Barbari (The Berber Knight) made by Jules Etiennes Marey in 1885 using the chronophotography technique, or to the era between 1895 and 1905 that is the era in which the “Viewer’s Catalogue” was assembled; it belongs to the French company Lumière, about 1800 short film made by the company at that time, including about 60 films on North Africa, only one film on Morocco entitled Rai’ al-ma’iz al-Maghribi (The Moroccan Goat Herder). But are we talking about Moroccan films here? This kind of film represents “the natives” as the Other, a static object that fits the decoration and background.
Al-Messnaoui explains that the criteria of a Moroccan film are not reduced in filming a film in Morocco with a Moroccan décor, nor in engaging Moroccan “actors” about whom we know only their names, nor through tackling Moroccan-like themes, these are only films made by foreigners on Morocco, far from the reality in Morocco. What is worth calling a Moroccan film is rather made by a Moroccan director who portrays the reality of Morocco from an internal perspective, not a superior one, starting from the lived reality not the eroticized one which serves a particular colonial agenda or give a picturesque Oriental superior view looking down upon the “natives” as “primitive,” “savage” and “exotic.”
When the French photographer and journalist, Félix Mesguich, came to Casablanca at the period when it was being attacked by the French colonial forces he stated that “when we reached [Casablanca through the sea] the smoke was rising from the city because of the bombings. A sailors’ group led us to the French consulate. I photographed some scenes of the soldiers in the deserted streets covered by dead bodies, from which a fetid smell rose with clouds of flies.” Clearly, from this description, the view expressed by Mesguich is the colonial gaze; the city that is burning does not make him feel a sense of disapproval, it is just like the “fetid smell” of the Moroccan citizens’ dead bodies.The quote shows how proud the French photographer is filming these Moroccan dead soldiers while he is protected by the French consulate. Al-Messnaoui argues that the gaze to the French occupation to Casablanca would have certainly been different if a Moroccan photographer were behind the camera, picturing what had been done by Moroccans as a legal resistance, not simply a barbaric act committed by “primitive” Riffians outside of civilization.
Morocco for France and the West, in general, is the same it doesn’t change; therefore, its image remains the same in the colonial cinema, perpetuating the same stereotypes about the “natives” and their inferiority vis-à-vis the superior West.
France attempted, following the Second World War, to establish a “Moroccan” cinema, supervised and directed by French cinematographers and addresses “Moroccan” stories cooperated by Moroccan “actors.” Here, too, we cannot talk about Moroccan Cinema, as long as it is only a diversification of the colonial orientation of cinema in Morocco; for this “Moroccan Cinema” is considered (under colonization) synonymous to local popular tales or “A Thousand and One Nights” tales or Molière’s plays within a Moroccan frame.
If it is hard to get rid of the colonial cinema easily; as much as it is also hard to integrate in its history. For Al-Messnaoui, the colonial cinema left clear scars on Moroccan Cinema, since the former is an essential phase of the latter.
The Phases of Colonial Cinema
Al-Messnaoui stages three main phases of the Colonial Cinema in Morocco;
The first phase is characterized by focusing on the exotic side of the Maghreb, this confirms the Westerners’ constructed image of the Islamic East as being aggressive and primitive. For the colonial directors the Arabic-Islamic civilization with its values, religion, and its view of the world, is totally different, and even contradictory, with the Western civilization that is much more civilized. Nevertheless it is a place of mysteriousness, stirring amazement and imagination. From this ambivalent state, most of these directors managed to make their films in Morocco and on Morocco, not because it is a separated land from the rest of the Arab world, but for it is the closest model to and on Europe.
Thus, the themes of the colonial film did not go beyond strangeness, fancy, magic, violent reactions, and the fatal jealousy, as its visual field did not go beyond sand, palm trees, camel caravans, the mosques’ towers, narrow streets, the burning sun, and its stories on love and adventure. The colonial films basically address the Western audience, so it is acceptable to marginalize “the natives” and transform them to “accessories” that fit the background where the European heroes move freely.
The hero of the colonial film is mostly a thief, a fugitive murderer, a bankrupt rich man, or one escaping from romantic failure, and then comes to Morocco to forget his worries or to hide his murder. Most of the times this hero ends with glory (soldier always) able to retrieve his money and his lover, or receive forgiveness for his crime.
Apparently in the second phase the “Moroccan” character has a better position in the colonial cinema, no more an object but a human. Yet, what sort of human? The “native” man is usually presented as naturally evil, bloodthirsty and murderous, and the “native” woman as a sorcerer, a belly dancer or a prostitute, or a very beautiful woman (always a Western actor who would play this role) of whom the young European officer falls in love with, and she might share him love but the end is never happy because of “the traditions, values and religious customs” which forbid marriage between a Moroccan woman and a nsrani (Christian man).
In this phase a Moroccan might contribute in providing a certain idea to the film with which the director wants to a give a local touch. This did happen in the film Wardat al Souq (or Arih achatwiya) the second Moroccan film of Jack Sepherac but it is about a “popular tale” that has nothing to do with real life. The attempt of the colonial director to get closer to the Moroccan reality was a failure, because he addresses reality through a fictional story. This film, however, led to the appearance of the first article in the Moroccan Cinema criticism by Mohammed al-Omari himself, in the form of a letter in French sent to the director in 1931 where he congratulates him for the film and celebrates it as a film that does not wound the dignity of Muslims and that it is within a Moroccan frame and characters.
Perhaps, a number of intellectuals would have shared this opinion because all what they asked from cinema was to display a Moroccan space with Moroccan characters, without having the thought to film a local film on reality because such films were needed in the colonial era to help in achieving independence not glorifying the colonial presence and portraying the colonizer as civilizing from one side, and as the most powerful that should be submitted to avoiding its anger from the other. This would have not affected the Moroccan audience anyway, who were mostly influenced by the Egyptian Cinema, for the fact that it is closer to their Arab culture and language. Therefore, to fight against the great influence of the Egyptian Cinema on the Moroccan society and to avoid the danger it might cause in developing awareness among Moroccans, a new vision was suggested to the Colonial Cinema that is establishing a local “Moroccan Cinema” that targets “the natives.” And here the third and final phase in Colonial Cinema starts.
The third phase: in harmony with the new vision, the French filmmakers made in Morocco several films targeting only Moroccans. Thus, in two years only, 1946-1947, about 12 films appeared all spoken by the local Moroccan Arabic, or rather in both Moroccan Arabic and French, starting by the film Yassmina. But the claimed Moroccan films were not welcomed by the Moroccans. This was explained by the French critic G. Hennebelle due to the absence of reality in these films, the Moroccan viewer does not find his real representation or his political ambitions in it.
Later, France will learn from its Moroccan “mistakes,” so it sent to Paris in 1958 about 15 candidates to pursue a training in the High Institute of Cinema (I. D. H. E. C.), but that was too late, for most of these candidates, after finishing their training served the “Independence National Movement” and filmed the first real Algerian feature films on armed resistance.
To conclude, Cinema in Morocco has been greatly influenced by colonialism. Colonial films cannot be considered or included within Moroccan Cinema, simply because the former marginalizes, and other times it distorts, everything that is Moroccan. In addition, Colonial Cinema was largely targeting a Western audience. Al-Messnaoui comes to the conclusion that there is no Moroccan Cinema unless it detaches itself from the colonial heritage and moves forward.