The “Bouanani-esque” Turn in Moroccan Cinema

by Ali Essafi

Ali Essafi is a documentary filmmaker and video artist. He met Ahmed Bouanani in 2007 and has played a key role in bringing his oeuvre to a wider audience.
His film OBOUR AL BAB ASSABEA (CROSSING THE SEVENTH GATE)is a portrait of Bouanani’s life and forms part of this year’s retrospective “Autour de Bouanani – Another Moroccan Cinema” that shows various films by Bouanani and the group of filmmakers in his orbit.

Ahmed Bouanani in the 1970s

“A film that is not necessary, a film that is not deeply rooted in our realities, does not interest me.”

Since my return to Morocco in 2004, I have sought to get to know Ahmed Bouanani and his cinema from closer up. One major lesson has stayed with me from my studies in the West, namely that the creative act is intimately linked to both how artistic production accumulates over generations as well as the way it’s transmitted. While tracing the lineage of my own practice, AL-SARAB (THE MIRAGE) and WECHMA (TRACES) come first in my pantheon of our national cinematic legacy. I had finally found the thread. And once I was finally able to discover TARFAYA AW MASSEERAT SHA’ER (TARFAYA OU LA MARCHE D’UN POÈTE), and AL-MANABE’ AL-ARBA‘A (LES QUATRE SOURCES), I naturally identified with the heroes of both films and their quest for the key to the “seventh gate”. Contrary to my expectations, my own quest to find Bouanani turned out to be almost impossible to accomplish. By the time I had returned to Morocco, he’d actually retreated to Aït Oumghar, a small town in the High Atlas. Those from the film profession I made enquiries with politely discouraged my attempts to meet him. I was given different arguments, that “he’s in a terrible state of health, in total agony”, that “he has a dour temperament and rejects company, that he’s “drunk from morning until night”, or that he was “a recluse in a lost hamlet no one knew how to get to”... The traces of his filmography I found on the web were imprecise, contradictory and incomplete. Not a single picture of him was available, with the rare press reviews of his work always being illustrated instead by his namesake, a well-known national television host. The first photograph to surface later on was the one I subsequently gave to the press... for his obituary! Only one bookshop in Casablanca still owned copies of his book “L’Hôpital”. In fact, Ahmed Bouanani and his oeuvre had almost entirely disappeared from circulation. Slowly but surely, he was being erased from collective memory, the very-same cursed “memory” that formed both the central leitmotiv of his work and the principal cause of his misfortunes. My curiosity was piqued rather than dampened by this “deliberate erasure”.

In the meantime, I’d managed to discover THAKIRAH ARBA’AT ‘ASHAR (MÉMOIRE 14) and SITTA WA THANIAT ‘ASHAR (SIX ET DOUZE), which were unknown to me, just as they were to most of my generation. I felt a rush of emotions, anger but also pride. And a rush of questions that I have been carrying with me since.

Why have I and those like me been denied access to these major works? Would I have followed the same path had I known Bouanani’s oeuvre when I was 20 years old?

In 2007, a relatively unknown festival in Rabat finally dared honor him with a tribute. That was when I was finally able to meet him in person. His body was like that of a ghost, but his spirit was lively, and his hand gestures elegant. His gaze remained youthful and piercing, his memory miraculously intact. He had no trouble listing, not without irony, the number of times that people claimed he was deceased! The day after our encounter, I was witness to yet another example of this repeated morbid occurrence. I was with the director of the Three Continents Festival in Nantes, when we came across Bouanani in the hotel elevator. As I proceeded with introductions, my companion looked at Bouanani anxiously, and after fumbling for words, he asked: “So you’re alive?”. Bouanani’s answer was a mischievous smile. A year prior, the Three Continents Festival had presented a panorama of the best Moroccan films and Bouanani had been invited to attend the screening of The Mirage. Needless to say, he didn’t come.

I had no trouble finding my way into the solitary realm of the “Bouanani-esque Turn in Moroccan Cinema”. Our shared cinematic affinities played an obvious part in our becoming close, but the privileged intimacy I was granted until his passing was more due to our literary rapport. There was a well-appointed list of celebrated writers whose novels we had both been unable to finish, a list which defied trends and publishing market pressures and which was topped by Tahar Ben Jelloun and Graham Greene. Conversely, we shared a particular fondness for great writers who had only written a single novel. As I waited to get my hands on a copy of John K. Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”, I gave him one of my favorites in the genre, “Pedro Páramo”. Juan Rulfo’s masterpiece of Mexican literature marked the starting point of Latin American magical realism, yet from some obscure reason, he’d remained unknown to Moroccan readers. I was impatient to hear Bouanani’s reaction, as he was both a writer as well as an inveterate reader. On my next visit, he enthusiastically read out the first two pages for me in his beautiful storyteller’s voice [1]. He was keen on demonstrating that a few paragraphs were sufficient to recognize the mark of a great novel. After that, Juan Rulfo’s book was always at the very top of the stack of books that lay next to him. On every one of my visits, Bouanani reminded me that he always kept this novella close by. Praise be to Juan Rulfo’s spirit, that illustrious stranger who sealed my friendship with Bouanani! Together with the support and participation of Naïma Saoudi Bouanani [2] and their daughter Touda, this was what made it possible for me to film our series of conversations, in view of a prospective film. It was then that the historical overview of his cinematic journey that I recount here was able to be gleaned.

The story starts at the beginning of the 1960s. The country had gained independence a short while earlier, but had quickly been swept up in power struggles and the Cold War’s stark bi-polarization. When Bouanani returned to Morocco in 1963 emboldened with aspirations and ideas for projects after completing three years of studies in France, the country was in the grip of tension. The only option for the recent graduate of the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) was to join the Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CCM), the only institution producing films at that time. What kind of films? The CCM was a small office belonging to the Palace, under the tight control of the Ministry of Interior. It did not produce cinema per se, but rather newsreels shot on film that were screened in theaters prior to the main feature. The newsreels chiefly documented the activities of the Palace and the government respectively. In other words, there were no possibilities for an artist of Bouanani’s ilk to pursue his aspirations. He was hired as the center’s chief film editor. From the very beginning, he was under close surveillance because the director of the IDHEC had drafted a report in which he mentioned Bouanani’s association with French anarcho-Trotskyite colleagues. In Morocco, he was immediately labeled as a communist. The fact that his graduation project focused on Andrzej Wajda’s film “Generation”, a Polish director who hailed from a communist country, only seemed to confirm this label. In truth, Bouanani was never affiliated to any political movement or party, but rather displayed contempt for politics and politicians from the entire spectrum to the very end of his life.

Bouanani was only interested in memory, his own, that of his family and his country, and this interest was neither arbitrary nor an intellectual whim. The drama of colonization left an irrevocable mark on his biography. His father, a police officer, was assassinated in shady circumstances as scores were settled in the final hours of the colonial era. The tragedy took place only a stone’s throw from their family home, almost under Bouanani’s eyes, who was merely 16 years old at the time. He did not witness the killing, but arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. From that moment on, “death had a long memory”, and he was never able to forget the sight of the “stains of blood on the sidewalk”, which shattered his “bicycle dreams”. Even at the end of his life, Bouanani would bring up this dramatic incident at every one of our encounters.

AL-‘AWDAH LI AGADIR (RETOUR À AGADIR) by Mohamed Afifi

Bouanani’s interest in memory is also very likely to have been linked to the disposition of his whole generation. He was keenly aware that he belonged to an intermediate generation which had both inherited an ancestral Morocco on the brink of extinction and was at the same time deeply implicated in the transition to modernity. At the CCM, his aspirations and mindset often clashed with the ignorance of censors. After the national television channel was launched in 1966, the CCM was expected to provide it with content. Bouanani subverted what was expected of these commissions to make the films he no longer wanted to put off making. TARFAYA OU LA MARCHE D’UN POÈTE is the most emblematic of these subversions. He was supposed to make an institutional documentary about the massive public works being undertaken in the town of Tarfaya, which had recently been liberated from Spanish colonial rule. Bouanani brought his own poetic approach to bear on the subject, almost as if creating a manifesto. The history of Tarfaya was told by way of a young poet’s quest to find an ancient spiritual master, which becomes an initiation.

Immediately after his return from France and prior to joining the CCM, Bouanani was asked by Mme. Aherdane to collaborate on Marrakesh’s Festival of Popular Arts. This opportune assignment allowed him to travel throughout the countryside, drawing, taking photos and collecting the oral history of popular arts before they were subsequently re-packaged as folklore. He became passionate about the sung poetry of Sidi Hammou, a legendary Soussi bard. His research on the popular 16th century poet informed the parable at the heart of his film on TARFAYA OU LA MARCHE D’UN POÈTE. It is worth noting here that most of Bouanani’s cinematic projects invariably had their genesis in poems, sometimes accompanied by drawings, before they were subsequently developed into novels or scripts. This first “pirate” project did not disturb anyone. Bouanani was not satisfied. One day, he confessed to me that if the “sequences formally connected to the instructions contained within the commission were edited out, [his] film,TARFAYA OU LA MARCHE D’UN POÈTE would be unearthed. It was not satisfying, but at least it was there, at a time when there were no other means of production.”

The real problems began in 1967, when a new director was appointed to head the CCM. From the outset, he regarded Bouanani as a maverick who needed to be contained. Bouanani was consequently reassigned to the archive department and was only able to work as an editor. Bouanani’s sidelining, which CCM’s hierarchy regarded as a punishment, was in fact his fortune. Bouanani had had a keen interest in archives for a long time already. He collected and classified all the archival material left behind by the French, whether colonial, public, or private. To circumvent his filmmaking ban, he began to work secretly on his next feature-length film Mémoire 14, which was entirely stitched together from archival footage and told the history of Morocco from the moment of colonization up to the present era. It was also inspired by a poem of the same name later published in “Les Persiennes” (The Screens).

During that time, he also devised various additional strategies to get around the ban on film directing. In 1968, he managed to shoot a short film essay titled Six et Douze with the illicit help of two technicians at the CCM who were fellow graduates of the IDHEC with whom he had collaborated on TARFAYA OU LA MARCHE D’UN POÈTE. Their names appear as the directors in the credits, while he is listed as editor. Bouanani broke with convention, however, by making sure that the title crediting him as editor appeared first, thus snubbing the censors. In the appendix to his “History of Cinema in Morocco” [3], Bouanani noted: “In a country where the majority of the population is illiterate, the credits are the least read text in a film.”

Six et Douze is an 18-minute black and white essay film. It was intended as a study of how light and movement change between the hours 6 and 12 in Casablanca. The film contains neither a commentary, nor a voice-over, and thus carries distinct echoes of Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” [4]typo3/#_ftn4. It is what is widely known as a ‘montage film’. The film’s soundscape is masterful, with Bouanani being one of the rare Moroccan filmmakers to pay such attention to this particular side of the craft. He confided in me that he invested all his energy and creativity in devising the sound design after he realized that the censors would pay no attention to it and would be far more focused on the image. In his “History of Cinema in Morocco”, Bouanani goes into greater detail about the origin and limitations of this nominally collective work. His critique was fair and acknowledged the circumstances in which it was made. Six et Douze is ultimately a unique document that captures life in Casablanca in 1968.

During the vibrancy of the year 1970, Bouanani decided to emancipate himself from the CCM’s tutelage and set up Sigma 3, an independent filmmaking collective, with two other young colleagues. With a few thousand dirhams, a single car and a great deal of ambition, the collective subsequently produced Weshma (Traces), which has been considered one of the masterpieces of Moroccan cinema since its release. Once the film was completed, one of the members of the collective seized the opportunity to claim its sole “paternity”, thus sidelining all the others. The Sigma 3 experiment therefore foundered. In Weshma’s credits, Bouanani was once again listed as editor, but his directorial signature is clear, especially with the passage of time. The film’s level of accomplishment remained unrivaled until Al-Sarab (The Mirage) ten years later, which Bouanani was able to direct openly, because the ban had by then been lifted.

Despite moving from one disappointment to the next, Bouanani remained undeterred and on the lookout for any new opportunity. Throughout these years, he continued working tirelessly on editing Mémoire 14. In 1971, he completed a cut that was 108 minutes long. After he screened it to the CCM officials, the institution’s director rejected the film entirely, and censored all sequences drawn from the archives on the Rif War. Bouanani attempted to re-cut several new versions, but the director censored more and more sequences each time. Mémoire 14 ended up only 24 minutes long. The CCM’s director grew so averse to the film, that he threatened to destroy the remaining film footage and fire its author unless he cut his long hair! Both Bouanani and indeed the film were only saved thanks to the unexpected consequence of a major political event. Before he could make good on his threat, the CCM director was killed In July 1971 while attending Hassan II’s birthday celebration, which coincided with the bloody Skhirat coup d’état against the king. Bouanani’s destiny once again rubbed up against the history of the nation.

The 24-minute version of Mémoire 14 still carries the traces of the brutal cutting it was subjected to. Entire sequences from the history of Morocco were ripped out, leaving huge gaps in the narrative structure. It is now impossible to restore the director’s original cut because all the censored material was burned at the time. Yet the film’s originality and innovative power remain undimmed. Bouanani subverted the colonial archive material and tried to use poetry to write another version of history. To my knowledge, it was the first time that a filmmaker hailing from a colonized country engaged in this form of “piracy”.

After a new director was appointed to lead the CCM, the censors softened a little bit. In 1972, Bouanani commenced a project that seemed like a continuation of TARFAYA OU LA MARCHE D’UN POÈTE. “Sidi Ahmed or Moussa”, was a docu-fiction that retraced the trajectory of the long-forgotten 15th century spiritual master and Sufi poet, who led armies in the war against the Portuguese colonization of the Moroccan coast. Following the liberation of the territories in question, he refused to hold any form of power, returning to his sanctuary and pursuing his studies, teaching, and contemplation. The film was shot in the southern region of Morocco where the Sufi poet had actually lived. The cast consisted of non-professional actors, selected from the local population. When the CCM inner circle watched the rushes, they rejected the project. Their principal argument was that the everyday people taking part in the film did not embody the model of the ideal Moroccan. Bouanani tried in vain to argue, negotiate, re-edit the film in myriad ways... But the CCM did not want to hear anything more about the film. The reels were abandoned in the laboratory in France where they were supposed to be developed.

Bouanani was inconsolable over the destruction of his work, only much later did he understand what had in reality unsettled the censors. He was the first to have attempted to foreground a heroic figure from the country’s history that had been expunged from the official annals. Furthermore, “Sidi Ahmed or Moussa” would have been the first film to celebrate Morocco’s Amazigh heritage. By extolling such a figure, the film would have run counter to the official version of history. Today, the only surviving traces left behind by the poet in collective memory remain the famous acrobats of the Djemâa al-Fna square in Marrakesh.

Bouanani was once again prevented from directing for a few years. In 1977, with yet another new director having been appointed to the CCM, his skills and rights were finally granted proper recognition, beginning with an adjustment in his salary that had remained “frozen” at the level he was earning when he first joined the CCM in 1963. Emboldened by this positive change, Bouanani launched into a new project based on a poetic fable. At that time, the CCM did not award production funds to fiction films. With the support of a small volunteer crew, Naïma’s talent for making magic, and materials left behind by foreign film productions given to them by their friend and set designer Mohamed Osfour [5]typo3/#_ftn5, Bouanani directed Les Quatre Sources in 1977. It is a 35-minute short film in which he experimented with color for the first and last time. When I showed it to him in 2010, Bouanani had not seen it since its completion! His face was overcome with emotion when watching the first sequence: “I had forgotten that the film was a failure!” Like any self-respecting artist, Bouanani was rarely satisfied with his own work. In this case, he had been deprived of the financial means to cover the fees for the actors he wanted to cast. In spite of its imperfections, this poetic fable attests to an original style that had by now matured. The modernity of his approach goes way beyond the majority of short films produced in Morocco today. The story is again centered on an initiation ritual, the poetic universe of which is close to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “A Thousand and One Nights”, as well as Sergei Parajanov’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”, both of which Bouanani had not seen at that point.

In 1979, he was finally granted the opportunity to direct his only feature film. Even though the budget was ridiculously low, Bouanani did not want to miss the chance. It was the start of the completion of a film he had started writing 10 years previously and continued to work on the whole time. After making a few tests in color which Bouanani deemed disappointing, Al-Sarab was shot in black and white, against the prevailing trend. In spite of the film’s unanimous critical acclaim and festival awards, distributors turned their back on the film because it was in black and white, an “old-fashioned” aesthetic they deemed not easily marketable. Bouanani’s faith was unwavering however. He requested support for a science-fiction project that was lying dormant in his drawers entitled “La Barrière”. The director of the CCM agreed to support the film on the condition that the lead female role be given to a national singing star who was currently in his favor. It was that or nothing. In despair, Bouanani decided to withdraw from the world of film.

He never gave up hope, and his collaborations with a new generation of filmmakers in the 1990s were the embodiment of that hope, most notably, his work with Daoud Aoulad Syad, for whom he wrote and sometimes also edited films.

How many scripts, essays and projects lie stacked in his boxes? And what of those that went up in smoke in the umpteenth tragedy to hit his life, namely the fire that ravaged his apartment? His daughter Touda, who has undertaken the task of archiving his legacy, keeps discovering new materials. The film that I am preparing in collaboration with her will acknowledge Bouanani’s production in its entirety. In the meantime, my quest will have at least revived this captivating cinematographic legacy that was lying dormant in cellars. The films that neither Bouanani himself nor his family had any access to are finally being screened at film festivals and national institutes for cinema. Since three years ago, cinephiles across the world now have the chance to enjoy them again.

“Blissful are those whose memory rests in peace” says the first verse of Mémoire 14.

[1] A trace of that storyteller’s voice thankfully remains in his film Les Quatres Sources.

[2] Ahmed Bouanani’s spouse and a pioneering art director and costume designer in Moroccan cinema.

[3] A long-term research project completed at the end of the 1980s which no Moroccan publisher wanted to sign onto.

[4] Bouanani refers to the influence of Mohamed Afifi, who he considered to have founded a whole school of Moroccan documentary cinema before his premature death. Six et Douze, Mémoire 14, as well as Majid Rechiche’s Al-Boraq and “Forêts” are its legitimate descendants. Mohamed Afifi (who should not be confused with the famous comedian of the same name) directed Retour à Agadir in the late 1950s, and later “De Chair et d’acier”, before succumbing to despair and changing professions. Bouanani dedicated an entire chapter to his work in “History of Cinema in Morocco”.

[5] Mohamed Osfour is a pioneer of Moroccan cinema whose first amateur film editing sessions and screenings Bouanani attended when he was a teenager. Bouanani directed a compelling docu-fiction entitled “Petite histoire en marge du cinématographe” in homage to him, as well as dedicating an entire chapter to his work in his “History of Cinema in Morocco”.

On the set of AL-MANABE’ AL-ARBA‘A (LES QUATRE SOURCES) by Ahmed Bouanani