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North African filmmaking: forgotten or ignored?

by Stefanie Van de Peer

The niche discourse reserved for African film theory and history has the tendency to prefer the classic auteur cinema from Francophone West Africa, due to this region’s prolific and innovative film making practices and their intricate relationship to the previous colonisers. Apart from the popular Egyptian melodrama and independent film industries, the North African region’s filmmaking has been left out of many studies on Arab or Middle Eastern cinema. Here, the Syrian and Lebanese and the controversial Palestinian cinemas have taken up much of the intellectual space. The same has been argued about African literary criticism: most studies focus on Nigerian and South African literary masterpieces while North Africa seems to be forgotten.

With a few exceptions, filmmakers from North Africa are ignored and left to specialists in the field. Roy Armes has attempted to trace a cinematic aesthetic within North African culture, with a focus on Tunisian and Moroccan filmmakers and on a theme-based analysis of mainly fiction films. Scholars of African cinema seem to regard filmmakers like Youssef Chahine from Egypt, Moufida Tlatli and Ferid Boughedir from Tunisia and Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina from Morocco as exceptional auteurs, separate from any kind of national or even regional cinema aesthetic. Yet these auteurs are fully integrated into their national cinema, and they are only one facet of the treasure trove that is hidden in North African cinema. It is also extremely problematical and thus all the more intriguing to find any films, documentaries or critical work on films from or about Libya, let alone any in-depth analysis of the lack of a national cinema in that country in spite of its close cultural links to Italy and productive neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.

Recently however, arguably with the death of Yousef Chahine last year, and with the global gaze fixed so intently on the Arab world, films from those corners have slowly surfaced in a few festivals worldwide. FESPACO, the biggest film festival on the African continent in Burkina Faso, had in its programme for the 2009 edition many more North African films than usual. Not only feature-length films and documentaries from North Africa featured notably in the brochure and cinemas; the short film competitions featured predominantly North African films. The prominence of those films was acknowledged by their success with audiences and with the jury members: at least one quarter of the prize winners at FESPACO were North African. In that vein, Africa in Motion wants to expand its horizons as well, and therefore this year we have programmed a larger number of films and shorts from Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, with some of the filmmakers in attendance.

North African films are generally known for their mystery, sensuality and highly artistic and inventive form and style. In the past, the beauty of these countries has been used by Western productions as a backdrop for exotic adventures. Since their independence in the 1960s, films from the Maghreb countries and their indigenous artistic forms have served as social commentaries on colonial atrocities. The sense of national identity, fresh after the struggle for independence, was expressed in themes such as the balance between tradition and modernity, colonial history and independent future, and tensions between gender expectations and realities.

The Egyptian film industry had an incredibly early start compared to the other North African countries. Towards the end of the 19th century, when the medium of film began to be explored in Europe, the upper classes in Alexandria and Cairo were equally enjoying the moving image. Throughout 20th century however there was a noticeable pendulum movement between government intrusion into the industry and a successful foray into independent filmmaking. It still seems difficult for the Egyptian film industry to find a constructive balance between government supported melodrama, with song and dance, stock characters focusing on the bourgeoisie and realist gems by the likes of Youssef Chahine and Salah Abu Seif. Recent young talent however, working independently and often against the censorship odds, find more and more success at international festivals. It is a matter of time before independent film making, funding from abroad and the unequalled success internationally will force the Egyptian censor to the background.

While Morocco and Tunisia both became independent from France in 1956, their film industry did not reach its pinnacle until Algeria had had its period of success and had set the example. After the terrible War for Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, the Algerian film industry blossomed, partly thanks to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. Algiers, with its energetic Cinémathèque, its national production that worked effectively, was the hub of third-world cinema. Algerian cinema was hugely influenced and even defined by the war, as national identity and pride were the foremost topics dealt with in cinema for a long time. Yet in the 1990s this success was destroyed by another war, the one against Islamic extremism. Today however, new and independent filmmakers from Algeria or with Algerian roots return to sensitive topics such as the war, Islamism and women’s roles in society. The return to the homeland and the pride one finds in reconnecting with the country are themes very often explored by exilic or diasporic filmmakers.

The Tunisian film industry flourished in the 1980s and the 1990s, most notably with Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine (1990) and Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of The Palace (1994). Today the Tunisian film industry is recognised in North Africa as one of the most liberal in the Arab world. After independence in 1956, the government controlled cinema and film production. But since the eighties, private and independent production companies emerged with large ambitions. Like the other countries in the region, films from Tunisia manage to reflect a new social dynamic, searching for a Tunisian identity within the clash between modernity and tradition.

Since the early 2000s, Morocco is the North African country producing the greatest amount of films. Between 2003 and 2004, more than forty films were produced. Morocco was the first Arab and African country to see such a rate of production. It even surpassed Egypt. This has signalled a greater visibility for Moroccan cinema in the region and worldwide. The success is due to two factors: the assistance of the public sector, e.g. the national film funds; and a thematic focus on Moroccan subjects, to which the local audience can correspond while diversity in style, content and form equally ensure the success rate of the Moroccan film industry.

The geography and history of North Africa contribute to the incredibly rich culture, as the region is often seen as the cradle of civilisation. Moreover, its hinge-like geographical position – is it Africa, the Middle East or part of the Mediterranean, or all of these – does not only provide an incredible wealth of transcultural and historical diversity, it could also be one of the causes of it being ignored inadvertently: one academic discipline presumes the other will cover it. It is precisely this richness in culture, and the status as a Muslim region, that puts the region (both the Maghreb and Egypt) in a specific situation that does not grant it the attention it deserves. There is moreover a recent revival of and growing interest in Arab culture and Islam, which arguably leads to two main tendencies due to a renewed exoticism. One result might be a fear and dismissal of the culture and its main religion on the grounds of an international paranoia, the other might be an overt and sometimes misplaced glorification that found its roots in Said’s Orientalism and a mythologisation of history.

We therefore urge our audiences to enjoy the North African gems that will be screened in our short film competition, and the feature length films integrated in the reconciliation themed as well as the contemporary programming: Forbidden Places by Moroccan Leila Kilani, The Yellow House by Amor Hakkar from Algeria and Française by Moroccan Souad El Bouhati.

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