The individual and the collective, the exciting search for freedoms, public life and private life (with all the silences they continue to maintain) - these are the dichotomies that run through the fabric of daily life in Morocco and they were very much on display in the films screened at the just-ended 15th Festival National du Film (FNF) in Tangier.
The FNF is the most important event on the Moroccan film calendar and practically the whole of the country's industry flocks here, from the most established names to new directors, among them many women, clutching their first films under the arms.
The burgeoning Moroccan industry is growing at a fair pace - from the five to six films shot in the 1990s, there are now 20 being released each year - and creators are aspiring to move closer to the dynamism of the Egyptian industry and the intrepidity of Iranian cinema, whose works have been selected for the world's major festivals for several decades now.
The festival is the most important event on the Moroccan movie calendar
"It is time to move from quantity to quality," said Abdou Achouba, the director and head of the short-film section jury during his opening speech at the festival.
The two features that took the main prizes, which are now sure to find European distribution - Kamal Kamal's Sotto voce, which won the main Best Film prize, and first-time filmmaker Mohamed Amin Benamraoui's Adiós Carmen (or, Goodbye Carmen), which took home the award for Best First Feature - display as much the ambition of the work of established filmmakers, as in Sotto voce's case, as the precise humility of the new: Adiós Carmen is a tribute to cinema and the human connections forged without words, when there is no common language and everything else around the few smiles turns out to be hostile.
If Paris-based filmmaker Kamal Kamal's film is ambitious, using bombastic operatic gestures to narrate a segment of African History with a capital "H" - depicting how a Moroccan helped Algerian outlaws flee justice during the war for independence by smuggling them across the border - then that of Benamraoui, who lives in Brussels, is its antithesis.
From five to six films in the 1990s, now 20 are being released each year
Benamraoui tells a series of small love stories, on the margins of everything else, in the 1970s, in the-then forgotten north Maghreb, among the Spanish refugees and the local people.
In that so believably recreated world, where permanent distrust is only overcome for fleeting moments, a boy whose mother has emigrated to Europe goes for the first time to the movie house in Nador, close to the border with the Spanish exclave of Melilla, under the influence of republican refugee Carmen, who works there with her projectionist brother.
Director Benamraoui was that little boy, who says he never learned Spanish because after the lovely Carmen disappeared from his life, he only received beatings in Castilian across the border in Melilla. Now a Belgian citizen, he recalls with tears how making the film gave him the chance to reunite with his former Spanish neighbor.
'Adiós Carmen' is a tribute to cinema and the human links forged without words
Without doubt, this sensitive and well-constructed homage to cinema and his mother tongue, Riffian Berber, begins to turn the page on some of the old misunderstandings between the exiled Spanish Republicans and the inhabitants of the places that took them in, during years that were painful on both sides of the frontier.
With a lead performance that won Hassan Badida the prize for Best Actor at the festival, Hicham Lasri's C'est eux les chiens (known in English as They Are The Dogs) could perhaps be described as a North African version of Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica's Underground: a man just released from prison after 30 years at the start of the Arab spring searches for his family but first has to find his name in some register, some ministry, someone who remembers him. Hoping for an exclusive interview, a younger journalist, cameraman and soundman accompany him enthusiastically in his wandering sleepwalk through the city, whose citizens are now protesting loudly in favor of collective rights.
From healing old wounds to another challenge: that of individual freedoms, of being openly gay in a Muslim country, of saying it and practicing it (there are those who say being on the left in your head is easier than being so with your body). Writer Abdellah Taïa came to Tangier to present his feature Salvation Army, based on his own novel about his teenage years growing up poor and homosexual in the Salé neighborhood of Rabat. It's a beautiful and moving work in which Taïa writhes against the silence of those who left him helpless against the bullying.
Like Benamraoui's film, it evokes the glamor of Egyptian and Bollywood cinema as the only possibility for daydreaming and escaping a childhood of beatings.