Review of Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society by Valerie K. Orlando Ohio University Press
What is ‘Third Cinema?’ This central question at the heart of Orlando’s book, Screening Morocco, is complicated by several issues. Beginning in the 1960s, this loosely-named film movement is more than just about films made in Third World countries. As Orlando points out, just because a film is made in a Third World country does not automatically qualify it as Third Cinema. Third Cinema films aim to indict colonial and post-colonial power structures in the service of drawing attention to the injustices of the past as well as reflecting the cultural community of the present. These films mirror national identities in flux and empower suppressed voices with cinematic narratives whose explicit and implicit goals are fundamentally those of liberation. This strategy of filmic liberation is finally one that collides head-on with issues of collective memory. Distant, lost, oppressed, and once-hidden voices must find reconciliation with the emotional truth of the present. Most often associated with the Social-Realist genre, these films aim to find such universal truths in the particulars of present circumstances. Orlando makes a compelling case in Screening Morocco that Moroccan cinema, once a filmic language of French colonial protectionism and more recently the propaganda machine of King Hassan II (through 1999), is finally shifting function from a cinema once merely located in the Third World to an important voice of still-emerging Third Cinema.
Orlando’s text provides an introductory background to the protectorate years of French influence and “the Lead years” of Hassan’s post-colonial rule. Now visibly loosed from these two sets of heavy hands, Moroccan filmmakers nevertheless continue to battle for an unfettered voice not absorbed by the described ‘elitist’ tendencies of French art cinema or proscribed by the invisible ‘red line’ of government censorship. Much like the infamous 1934 Hayes code in Hollywood, self-censorship has been the guiding rule with regard to thematic content, preventing heavy questioning of religion, ruling political regimes, dominant nationalist ideologies, and sexual freedom. However, the central point of this book is that the terms of this national identity crisis are changing slowly, but surely.
The primary textual focus is on films made from 1999-2009 and the obstacles faced by this emerging dissident cinema. Reminding audiences of the voices of the troubled past, these films are tasked with locating the relevance of collective memories in the relevance of the present. While filmmaking has increased both in quantity as well as the diversity of content, as pointed out in this book, key struggles remain for this rarely regarded film industry in an age of globalized demands. The central question for Orlando is one of language, which relates to voice: whose language is being used (Arabic, Berber, or French) and why? With training and production funds geared toward the more distribution friendly, if elitist, French-speaking audiences, how do filmmakers get their local voices heard in an international context? With local cinema-going on a steep decline in the age of DVDs, Moroccan cinemas have rapidly declined in number with the majority located in large cities like Casablanca. With limited resources, skilled directors have been forced to become their own screenwriters, which as the author notes have led to some less-than-spectacular scripts. With technicians trained in French film schools or otherwise imported, local voices can be harder than ever to hear vis-à-vis the demands of global film distribution. As a result, Moroccan films are discussed in terms of a cinema in search of an audience, rarely screened outside their homeland, and often available as Orlando notes only directly from the directors or from pirated DVDs sold on the streets. While this issue begs an interesting if unengaged question about the relevance of piracy to counter-hegemonic Third Cinema strategies, the problem is exposed: how do you stir the pot without a spoon? The answer of course is to use a knife.
To this end, the author surveys some of the major films from 1999-2009 in the Social-Realist genre that arguably move Moroccan film from films made in the Third World to Third Cinema. Specifically, Orlando looks at the rise in films dealing with intra-cultural ethnic conflicts, harsh urban youth realities (with the median age in Morocco stated as 23), films effacing the harsh memories of the past, and the rise in films directed by and concerning women. Each chapter discusses the relevant issues at hand followed by discussions of major films in these categories within recent Moroccan cinema. Orlando brings in relevant writers from Edward Saïd to Manthia Diawara and Mikhail Bakhtin, but keeps the book fairly light on theory and, as a result, eminently readable. If there is a notable lack here, it is in the end date of discussion, 2009. Since the conditions described by Orlando were changing so rapidly up until 2009, one wonders what significant changes in the film industry and audiences have occurred since then that might affect the conversation.
Of particular interest, the debate over language and film subtitling is given a central role of importance. Will a controversial Moroccan film directed by a woman in Arabic dealing with local concerns and national identity be ultimately subtitled in French for mass distribution to international and/or elitist audiences? Is this the audience these films need? One gets the sense this distribution move is akin to ‘selling out’ from Orlando’s perspective. That point is well-taken, but as the author notes does little to solve the inherent dilemma posed between conveying the authenticity of cultural voice and reaching wider audiences through entertainment value. How will Moroccan cinema thus ultimately sustain itself amidst the pressures of globalization, especially as filtered through the issue of language? Orlando does not pretend to know these answers, but is frank in demonstrating the relevance of the question. This book shows that beyond aesthetic consideration alone, world cinema serves an important cultural function as a mirror through which national identity is reflected back at audiences. It acts politically as a means both to engage the past and as the late (French) activist filmmaker Chris Marker might say, as a means to remember the future. Orlando engages cinema at the level of cultural identity and not merely through entertainment value. In doing so, the author demonstrates the continued significance of an ever-evolving Third Cinema, as a necessary intersection of the voice of the place and the place of the voice.
Reviewed by Nathan Carroll, The College of St. Scholastica
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]