No matter what you’ve heard about Tangier—that it’s a town of hustlers, bandits and drugs, or is a Mecca for artists and writers from Eugene Delacroix to Henri Matisse to Jean Genet—the strange thing may be that you have heard of it at all. A town of 900,000 on the very northern tip of Africa, only seven miles from Spain, it is neither the political nor economic capitol of any country nor the site of any major disasters. Yet it’s created an identity as a great fount of stories and light. The newest development in its narrative is that it now has its own independent cinema, the Cinémathèque de Tanger, which opened in 2007. This young institution has curated Another Border, a showcase of its archives on view at the Pacific Film Archive and closing October 1. Four programs organized by themes, (H)istory Tellers, Feminine vs. Masculine, >From a Distant Land, and Who Are the Others?, feature Moroccan filmmaking from its inception to the present day—representations, experiments and documentaries dealing with a range of current social and political issues, as well as films by foreigners.
Inspired by the idea best expressed by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, "A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album," the goal of the Cinémathèque is to gather archives. In the program at the PFA, we see a country being constructed through the visions of individual, mostly independent filmmakers, through historical footage and contemporary video. Another Border offers an alternative to the simple version of Morocco we get from the widespread tourism campaign or the Marrakech Film Festival wrap-ups. A viewer still falls in love with the country, but through its struggles and confrontations with itself and with the outside.
Thursday’s program poses a question in its titled "Who Are the Others?" which is answered in three films with diverse styles. Todos Os Llamais Mohamed (You are all named Mohamed), by Max Lemcke, looks at an illegal Moroccan immigrant’s experience once he arrives in the "promised land" of Spain and finds that he only half-expected the place to be inhabited by the Spanish. This poses some problems since he does not speak Spanish. His migration holds many similarities to Mexican migration to the U.S. (the Strait of Gibraltar forms the dangerous crossing instead of the desert). Tala Hadid’s poetic look at a man’s homecoming (Your Dark Hair Ihsan) does more to complicate the question: The man feels stranger in his hometown without any personal connections than he does out in the strange world. Conceptual artist Mounir Fatmi’s film The Others Are the Others, from which the night’s program draws its name, takes an informal street poll approach to digging the subconscious, and people respond with their first impulses to this abstract query.
The (H)istory Tellers program, which played earlier, offers variations on images made for export. Gabriel Veyre, the Lumière Brothers’ operator, traveled the country on a mission for Morocco’s sultan making ethnographical and historical images of the colonial period and daily life. These authentic images of Morocco look eerily similar to the ones circulated today to appeal to tourists’ hunger for the quaint life of yesterday. A counterpoint, a humorous documentary about a town completely run by big industry movie-making, Ouarzazate Movie by Ali Essafi, takes an investigative/journalistic approach to the inhabitants of the desert town that figures into numerous big-budget films. You are likely to recognize the temple from Martin Scorsese’s Kundun on the outskirts of Ouarzazete, but not the many people who play the warriors in those massive Punic or Crusade war scenes. Though the film has its flaws and was originally made for TV, it also, necessarily, has its cinematic moments. One of the film’s extras, dressed in pharaonic period costume, laments his lot as a minor player on the world’s stage and his weighty raiment against a magnificent sunset.
The sweetest film in the series, Balcon Atlantico is a 20-minute single-shot exploration of the different variations of love relationships in the small northern city of Larache as part of Feminine vs. Masculine program. The snippets of conversation the camera allows us to hear as it wends it way down the boardwalk overlooking the Atlantic and the infinite horizon are both universal and local stories negotiating between love (unrequited and illicit) and money.
In El Batalett: Femmes de la Medina, Dalila Ennadre follows a group of women through their daily lives, looking at their relationship to a burgeoning women’s rights movement that takes them to a protest in Rabat. Morocco’s Mudawana, or family code, revised in 2004, gives women the right to vote, to inherit land and to divorce. These enormous legal advances trickle down slowly in terms of real changes in societal conventions. In the women’s words, we hear that the only choice for a single mother is to be a prostitute, or that society expects women to have three tenets in life Laundry, Cooking and Cleaning.
In a city that is (in)famous for its (con)artists, the Cinémathèque fills an obvious gap and welcomes both theatrical productions and concerts in its two theaters. It is one of only two permanent stages in the center of the city, both opened in the last two years. It is also the only place to offer workshops and a visiting directors series. When the CdT opened, the town was just barely coming out of 20-year economic standstill, and vying for the 2012 World Expo. Since then, the city of Tangier has grown in girth and welcomed people from all over Morocco looking for employment opportunities in the new enormous Mediterranean port and tourism projects. The few cultural institutions have become crucial in the formation of new urban communities.
The building, the Cinema Rif, is itself a space open to everyone. The café is filled with youth who feel free to go on dates there, or play acoustic guitar, but who don’t necessarily go to see the films. This is one of the challenges the CdT has to face in its second year. A children’s program with the Magic Lantern welcomes two shifts of kids to see kids’ classics and new animation releases with a presentation made by live actors beforehand. The CdT has also hosted local and cross-cultural documentary filmmaking workshops.
Tangier was always a cinema city. It has 14 cinemas, only four of which remain open today. Each cinema played a different tradition of film; the Spanish cinema Goya, the Mauritania, Lux, Goya and Paris showed European films, and a tiny theater in the old medina, the Alcazar, showed spaghetti Westerns. A vibrant Indian population until the 1980s was the impetus for a few Bollywood cinemas (among them the 1938 Cinema Rif where the CdT now makes its home, and which also showed Egyptian film until the ‘80s). Tangerines, as the British call inhabitants of Tangier, came out of a tradition of world cinema before the term existed. International film was a form of communal consciousness, so much so that there are people who speak Hindi because of Bollywood films—without ever having met an Indian. In 1991, the borders of Morocco closed to anyone without a visa, and satellite TV came into the home. The idea of the communal movie-watching experience at its best moved to cafes where only men were allowed to go.
If part of watching films is to have a common language of experiences and stories, the Cinémathèque is a welcome addition to Tangier’s cultural life and to the global film scene. I went to Tangier for the first time in February of 2005 to intern at the CdT, which at the time was only an idea. The building was a rundown shell of a theater where men went to smoke kif and lose themselves in complete fantasy. After this I stayed in Tangier for another three years, and stayed loosely affiliated with the cinema. As I was leaving Tangier this summer on my way to San Francisco, I saw two kids in a small alley in the old Medina walking on their heels one playing with his hat, the other a stick he was using as a cane. I heard one of them shout "Charlie Chaplin," and couldn’t help but think they had seen Chaplin at one of the cinema’s Sunday matinees.
Simona Schneider is a writer, translator and artist until recently based in Tangier, Morocco. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and Bidoun among other publications. She is completing her PhD in Comparative Literature and Ethics at UC Berkeley.
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