Issue 003 Fall 2021 Interviews

To Build a World That Is Not Traumatizing

Conversations between Ahmed Bouanani and Nour-Eddine Saïl, translated from Maghreb Informations.

Introduction and translation by Omar Berrada

Ahmed Bouanani, 1971. Photo by M'hamed Bouanani. Courtesy of the archives of filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani.


Poet, essayist, and fiction writer Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011) was also a protagonist of Moroccan cinema as a director, editor, and screenwriter. He was revered for his artistic vision and unshakable integrity. However, such probity also turned him into a tragic figure. Repeatedly censored and banned from access to production funds, he died in solitude, surrounded by countless book manuscripts and unrealized film projects.1 The bulk of Bouanani’s oeuvre is yet to be viewed. His work and archive are slowly coming to light,2 thanks to the efforts of his daughter, visual artist and filmmaker Touda Bouanani, and a small group of artists, scholars, and aficionados eager to revive ideas and experiments the Years of Lead had silenced.3


Though limited in volume, Bouanani’s extant work is exceptional. His feature film Mirage (1979) is a classic of African cinema. His shorts—Tarfaya ou la marche d’un poète (1966), 6 et 12 (1968), Mémoire 14 (1971), and Les Quatre Sources (1977)—are enduringly fascinating experiments of cinematic self-determination. He belonged to a generation of artists who grew up under French colonial rule and came of age in a newly independent nation. Like elsewhere in Africa, formal independence was a far cry from actual decolonization. Bouanani understood his work as a contribution to liberating the Moroccan mind. In the field of cinema, this meant “decolonizing the screen”4 after the long “colonial night”5 had imposed a distorted, scornful image of the (North) African natives.
While many in positions of power did their best to sabotage Bouanani’s work, he also had his supporters. Nour-Eddine Saïl (1947-2020) was one. Trained as a philosopher, Saïl was an educator and a film critic. He launched the first Moroccan film journal, Cinema 3, in 1970, founded the Fédération nationale des ciné-clubs du Maroc (FNCCM) in 1973, and established the Festival du cinéma africain de Khouribga in 1977. Later in his career, he became the director of the Centre cinématographique marocain, Morocco’s National Film Center, as well as the director of the 2M television station.
From 1972 to 1974, Saïl edited a weekly column in the newspaper Maghreb Informations. On two occasions, in 19736 and in 1974,7 he devoted it to an interview with Bouanani. The second interview picks up where the first one left off, hence my decision to join them together here.8 These conversations from Maghreb Informations are a window into a radical filmmaker from Morocco. This was a time when a national cinema was only a dream—only five feature films had been produced since the country’s independence in 1956.

The conversation begins with Bouanani’s montage film Mémoire 14, which aimed to recount the onset of colonization in early twentieth-century Morocco. Realizing the only available documentary materials were propaganda images shot by the colonizers, Bouanani decided to edit them against themselves by undermining their rhythm, their sequencing, their framing, as well as entirely transforming the existing soundtrack.


Manuscripts in the Bouanani apartment. Image courtesy of Touda Bouanani.

Nour-Eddine Saïl: Why the title Mémoire 14?

Ahmed Bouanani: Mémoire 14 was initially a poem I wrote in 1967.9 I included some passages from it in the text that accompanies the film. I wanted to keep this title because in my opinion it conveys the foundations on which the structure of the entire film rests: by way of chaotic recollections and a labyrinthine memory, men and women who are at once active in and witnesses to their generation, to their fourteenth-century world,10 attempt to recover their own reality. This reality inscribes itself in letters of gold and blood against a specific political and cultural context.

 

N-ES: You chose the path of myth. You question Moroccan reality on a fundamental level by meticulously deciphering a whole set of popular myths. What status do you give to reality? In other words, isn’t the choice of myth a kind of escape from reality? 

AB: I did not deliberately choose the path of myth. I would say that myths imposed themselves in such a way that rejecting them would have meant amputating reality of an essential dimension. Let me explain: it is through anachronistic memories, memories nourished by myths, that I attempt to recompose the “reality” of my characters and of their universe. These ancestors who lived in an epic, feudal world, who traveled on sheepskins and truck racks, can only conceive of their reality through stereotypical images—these may appear somewhat grotesque and “unrealistic,” but their legendary sources are true, not imagined. The mythification of reality is simply an operation of sensitization. A mythologized reality does not lose its “mathematical” face; on the contrary, it inherently acquires a force that imprints itself in memory for good. Even when memory, a memory among others, visualizes the idealized image of the precolonial cultural and economic condition, it cannot ignore or reject the reality of that society—the fact that it was governed by a feudalism whose mask naturally emerges out of the exuberant Golden Age imagery.11 

Dealing with reality on one side and myth on the other is therefore out of the question; there is a permanent interdependency between them. And I don’t see how one can speak of an escape from reality about a film that is entirely driven by reality, where each shot is a halftone print of the real and the fantastical. A linear arrangement of events and history would have produced a different film, something very impersonal. But I am not a historian and I don’t claim to “narrate,” in Mémoire 14, the history of Morocco since 1912.


Ahmed Bouanani as an actor in Une Porte Sur Le Ciel (1988) directed by Farida Benlyazid. Photo by Kamal Dridi.

N-ES: What was the trajectory of this film for you? How did you come up with the idea of assaulting Moroccan viewers by questioning one of the fundamentals of their identity—the country’s history?

AB: My great ambition was and still is to make a film about the Moroccan epic of the early twentieth century. That period is not yet “ancient history” for us. It is alive, terribly present. It cannot be approached in a casual, innocent way. And if the Moroccan viewer feels attacked by Mémoire 14, this is not due to any manipulation on the part of the filmmaker, but rather to the subject of the film itself. This is after all the story of an aggression, an aggression whose consequences we are still unfortunately suffering.

 

N-ES: Technically speaking, you did a remarkable job with the editing and the soundtrack. Can you give an overview of the research that allowed the technique you used (editing at the limit of the documentary) to be fully effective?

AB: In order to make Mémoire 14, I had to watch a great number of colonial documentaries—some very toxic shorts. The Protectorate’s political propaganda in these films is very simplistic, when it is not also sly and cynical. The “content” of these films is essentially based on a confrontation between two starkly divergent ways of life: a traditional, archaic, backward way countered by one that is modern, advanced, etc. There is a recurring scene in these films, where a peasant with a plow meets a settler with a tractor. This entire body of work is geared toward highlighting the transformation and modernization operated by France’s presence in Morocco. Hence my attempt to systematically undermine it by way of a method based on constant demystification. The shots I chose for my film are fragments of distorted reality. The editing I opted for—which in some scenes uses [Sergei] Eisenstein’s famous “montage of attractions” technique—allowed me to place these fragments in an opposite perspective. For example, shots of horsemen, of a village attacked by bandits, of cattle raiders acting with impunity (as colonial films show us) in blad Siba,12 become in Mémoire 14 the elements of a different reality, namely: faced with the aggression of the “pacifying” army and the panic created by its presence and its canons, the peasants leave the plow for the gun and try to resist the invader. Many other examples of the same kind are found throughout the film. . . . Technically, I did not invent anything. I applied, as much as possible, the classic cinematographic research on editing carried out by the 1920s Soviet school, Vsevolod Pudovkin in particular. As for the soundtrack, it allowed me to express what I could not show or say openly through the text. Cinematographic research is curiously dependent on the “impositions” to which the spectator is subjected. 


Nour-Eddine Saïl (left) and Abdellah Bayahia (right), photographed in 2009 by Touda Bouanani. Bayahia was the cinematographer of Bouanani's feature film, Mirage.

N-ES: Any new projects?

AB: Unfortunately, all Moroccan filmmakers live only in “projects.” Nothing more. It is the common curse of our generation. This year I am finishing a short color film on Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa, which allows me to reconnect with the “mythical reality” of the past. As I study the tenth century of the Hijri calendar (sixteenth century of the Christian era)—the time of the Portuguese occupation and of the great poet Sidi Abderrahmane Al Majdoub—I find strange affinities with the reality we are currently living through. To reconsider the past is to understand the present in order to master it and find the adequate weapons for our defense and our survival. There is no better project for a filmmaker than to contribute with his modest means to the radical and systematic transformation of his society, with a view to building a world that is not traumatizing.

N-ES: Why did you delay shooting your feature film [Mirage]?

AB: Thirty or forty million [dirhams] is not easy to come by. Whereas everywhere else films require hundreds of millions, if not billions, here in Morocco, at the beginning, we make do with small budgets. But these budgets, however small, are not easy to find. For a long time, I was hoping for a private producer. That was a big mistake. People who have money power don’t give a damn about promoting any kind of national cinema; what they want is to make even more money, and at a lower cost. They even try to discourage all attempts by making people believe that a film cannot be profitable without a headliner, for instance—another stupid myth we don’t need. I looked at the other possibilities. Repeating the Wechma experience?13 It seems impossible for me to push my colleagues into that kind of ordeal again. They were too disappointed and discouraged. After all, they had sacrificed everything for that first film. I don’t have the right to ask them to make the same sacrifices again. So, what’s left? 

The CCM,14 with its new policy, has helped the last two national productions enormously. They are willing to fund my project without any restrictions, while the private sector—if they had deigned to take an interest in the film—would have undoubtedly imposed a lot of nonsense on me in the name of profitability and commerce. With the CCM, I risk none of that. I should add that if I took my sweet time shooting my first feature, it is also because I was not ready. Making a feature film is not the be-all and end-all; it is as important to express yourself in a short film as in a one-and-a-half-hour movie. It would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it, to say that a novelist is more important than a short story writer. Of course, with our short films we have no chance of reaching the general public. So far only the FNCCM has largely helped make our productions known through its network and has, by the same token, supported us enormously. As for commercial theaters, no law requires them to show Moroccan short films. The audience is much more used to seeing documentaries about Florida. So, with feature films we will have to face the general public—assuming that our productions are given access to theaters in the same way as foreign films. This issue of distribution is not yet fully settled. It took me almost two years to finalize my script. I first wrote it like a novel. After a few months, I ended up with a voluminous manuscript of over two hundred pages. A vast epic. Bringing such a novel to the screen was out of the question. I neither have the capacity nor the financial means for it. So, I limited myself to a less ambitious subject. Now I am struggling with issues of a different nature. I have not definitively solved some problems with the dialogues; I have not yet chosen the leading actor. Our so-called professional actors have few opportunities to improve themselves and develop their talent. When they are given work, on television and on theater stages in particular, they are always left to their own devices; they work in haphazard ways. For certain roles, I am thinking of taking nonprofessionals.

 

N-ES: Do you take the audience into account in your work as a director? To what extent? 

AB: Too much is said about the audience. People think too much in the audience’s place. The distributors and exhibitors pride themselves on knowing the audience. They invariably describe it as a bunch of idiots who are incapable of appreciating a good film. These same people forget—or pretend they don’t know—that they alone are responsible for the nonsense that floods the national market. Will they let the audience choose for itself? Certainly not. As far as I know, no audience has ever demonstrated in the streets to demand King Kong movies and, before that, Italian westerns and Macistes. Very often I read in the newspapers that such and such a theater, “by popular demand,” has decided to show such and such a film. How on earth was this demand made? By referendum? By mail? They are keeping the audience in a state of fascination. People are no longer going to the movies to let off steam; they’re going to the movies to be repressed. I have heard it said more than once that the public is the only judge, etc. Sounds nice. What a beautiful democratic rule. But does the public have the necessary weapons to be able to judge? Has it not, on the contrary, been deprived of them? Haven’t they dulled its capacity for judgment and clear-sightedness to the point of preventing it from reacting in a healthy way against harmful programming policies? So, what attitude should we adopt? I say: film or theater creators, artists who respect themselves, must never try to please the audience, to please it by exploiting the weaknesses that were inculcated to it. On the contrary, they must denounce them. We must be sincere with the public; that is the best proof of respect. In any case, whatever the degree of mystification it has been confined in, the Moroccan public will not get it wrong when it is eventually allowed to watch Moroccan films. 

 

N-ES: Do you have projects other than the feature film that you will start in the coming weeks?

AB: Sure. Among others, an adaptation of [The Siege of] Numantia by [Miguel de] Cervantes. But what good are projects, new projects, when we always have to conquer our own national market? If we have to go through the same channels every time to get any old project done, and if we have to fight every time to get access to Moroccan theaters, it will be hell. We must manage to impose a common agenda with three main laws, namely: a national fund for film production, exploitation and distribution quotas, and a tax exemption for national productions. Some ill-intentioned spirits keep raising the problem of tax exemption for films without specifying their nationality. Next, they’ll demand a tax exemption for Hong Kong movies! Lastly, I wanted to point out that a producers’ guild was just officially created. I am sure that they will be good interlocutors. As for me, I do not claim, as some do, to save Moroccan cinema by making a feature film, nor do I claim to make a masterpiece. Only fools make such pompous claims. I actually proclaim my right to make bad movies, and this is not a joke. My only ambition—the ambition of all Moroccan filmmakers—is for the audience to get used to watching themselves on the screen, to see their own problems being addressed and thus to be able to judge the society in which they live. The screen must no longer be the privileged mirror of foreign realities. 


Footnotes:

1.  For a poignant filmic portrait of Ahmed Bouanani, see Ali Essafi’s Crossing the Seventh Gate (2017, 80’). 

2. Two of Bouanani’s books were published in English translation in 2018 by New Directions: The Hospital (fiction) and The Shutters (poetry). 

3. The Years of Lead is the name given to a period of violent political repression in Morocco, roughly between the mid-’60s and the late ’80s, under the reign of King Hassan II.

4. Expressions from Ahmed Bouanani’s posthumous book, La Septième Porte: une histoire du cinéma au Maroc 1907-1986 (Rabat: Kulte Editions, 2020). This history of film in Morocco is co-edited by Touda Bouanani and Berrada.

5. See note 4.

6. “J’ai choisi la voie du mythe”, Maghreb Informations, March 23, 1973.

7. Un film qui ne s’enracine pas profondément dans nos réalités ne m’intéresse pas”, Maghreb Informations, June 29, 1974.

8. The first interview is included in full. I omitted three questions from the second interview, for length and consistency.

9. An English version of the poem, under the title “Memory 14,” is included in Ahmed Bouanani, The Shutters, trans. Emma Ramadan (New York: New Directions, 2018).

10. Fourteenth century in the Islamic Hijri calendar, which roughly corresponds to the twentieth century AD.

11. While making a plea for maintaining the cultural memory of a precolonial past, Ahmed Bouanani warns against the trap of idealizing it as a Golden Age since it was a deeply unequal, feudal system.

12. Blad siba, which translates roughly to “anarchy zones,” refers to areas of Morocco that were out of the control of the central state.

13. Wechma [Traces], which came out in 1970, is considered to be the foundational feature film of independent Moroccan cinema. It was produced by Sigma 3, a small cooperative of four filmmakers who all chipped in to the enterprise and pledged to work on each other’s films. Bouanani was a founding member of Sigma 3 and the editor of Wechma. The collective came apart after this initial project.

14. Centre cinématographique marocain, the National Film Center.

15. A type of Italian film featuring the character of Maciste, a massively powerful protagonist who performs heroic feats.