Zankat Contact, umpteenth film censored by the Moroccan Cinematographic Center (CCM). The information fell on October 20. A month earlier, the feature film by director Ismaël El Iraki won the Grand Prize at the 22nd edition of the Tangier National Film Festival. In question, the presence in its soundtrack of a piece of the Sahrawi singer pro-Polisario Mariem Hassan, who died in 2015.
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A “purely aesthetic and musical choice”, defends the director, whose professional card was suspended in the process by the CCM. In September 2020, the main actress of her film, Khansa Batma, received the prize for female interpretation in the Orizzonti category at the 77th Venice Film Festival.
One minute less sunshine (2003), Exodus (2014), Much Loved (2015), His (2021), The Lady of Paradise (2022)… All these national or foreign cinematographic creations censored by the CCM have been accused either of offensive to morals, or of attacking one of the three sacred symbols of Morocco: Islam, the person of the king and the territorial integrity.
Propaganda in its DNA?
Understanding the current functioning of the CCM and what it involves requires going back to the sources of its creation, in 1944 by the administration of the French Protectorate. At the time, its missions were to frame, institutionalize and localize cinema in Morocco to reach the “indigenous public” and compete effectively with Egyptian film productions, which promoted pan-Arabism.
The CCM then served above all to produce and preserve colonial propaganda films. Surprisingly, at independence in 1956, the kingdom gave the CCM a second life. “This decision proves that already at the time, Morocco was not at odds with France,” explains researcher Marie Pierre-Bouthier, a specialist in Moroccan cinema. Unlike Tunisia and Algeria which “liquidated” their cinematographic centers under colonial administration.
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On the links between the government and the CCM, Marie Pierre-Bouthier develops: “Initially, the center was under the leadership of the Ministry of Information, and not of the Ministry of Culture as in the Tunisia of Bourguiba. In the 1980s, the Ministry of Information merged with that of the Interior. Under Hassan II, the CCM maintained its role as a producer of reports and films supporting official propaganda, often sponsored by the various government departments, or even by public companies such as the Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP).
In addition to its role as organizer and main promoter of the film industry, the CCM has always held several hats. Among them, the distribution of official documents: filming authorizations, professional cards, operating visas, authorizations to exercise to producers and distributors and operators of cinemas. But also the granting of subsidies to a certain number of film productions fulfilling specific specifications.
“From the beginning, the CCM was not designed to promote cinematographic creation, in opposition to commissioned cinema [étatique ou institutionnelle, ndlr]. This changed slightly in the 1980s, then a little more during the tenure of Noureddine Saïl (2003-2013),” explains the researcher. This lack of creative tropism would explain the attitude deemed “liberticidal” of the CCM, which interferes in each stage of the creative process.
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Today, the CCM depends on the Ministry of Culture and Communication, even if, until the appointment in 2014 of Sarim Fassi-Fihri as its head, it was the king himself who appointed its director. A method of appointment that gives a lot of power to the latter. Too ? In any case, this is the conclusion of many specialists in the field.
Two directors, two opposing visions of cinema
The evocation of the era when the late Noureddine Saïl was director of the CCM seems to make more than one Moroccan filmmaker nostalgic. “He was an intellectual, a cinephile. He was well acquainted with quality work. He was recognized internationally as well as nationally for his intelligence, his culture and his love of Africa,” says Moroccan producer Lamia Chraibi.
“He knew everyone. He was a frenzied activist who, as soon as he arrived at the head of the CCM, already knew what he wanted to do, ”says Marie Pierre-Bouthier. Even if she concedes that “he too had his heads” and “could be arbitrary” in the promotion of such and such a project. Professor of philosophy and art critic before directing the CCM, it was he who reformed the system of advances on receipts and bet on the production of fiction “to the detriment perhaps of documentary films”, laments Marie Pierre – Bouthier.
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His successor, Sarim Fassi-Fihri (2014-2021), a totally different profile, was heavily criticized for his management, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. Holder of a master’s degree in production from the University of Toulouse, he would have discovered the film industry within an international production in Tunisia. Before creating, in the 1980s, its own structure for filming, the company Moroccan Productions & Services (MPS). Producer executive for foreign projects carried out in Morocco, he would have a “more capitalist” vision of cinema than Noureddine Saïl.
February 2021, when several cinemas are forced to close their doors, professionals in the sector send a letter to the director of the CCM, alerting him to the critical situation of employees and employers in cinema exhibition. Two months later, “after several unsuccessful attempts at dialogue”, a second letter was sent to Sarim Fassi-Fihri.
Entitled “Save Moroccan cinema”, it cites a series of measures by the boss of the CCM deemed “incomprehensible”: “penalize projects suspended because of the pandemic”, “arbitrarily withdraw professional cards”, “refuse the case of force majeure for an exemption from the deadline before filming”, “abuse of its power by withdrawing the installments of the advance on receipts without justification”…
His interference in the decisions of the Film Production Aid Commission are also targeted. This structure is made up of employees from the Ministries of Culture, Communication and Finance, union delegates and an employee of the CCM. Its independence is vital for the allocation of grants. “Their appreciation of the projects depends on their culture and their understanding of the cinema, explains Lamia Chraibi, Often also, unfortunately, of their acquaintances with the professionals of the cinema. »
After three terms at the head of the CCM, when he had reached retirement age in 2018, Sarim Fassi-Fihri saw the extension of his mandate canceled by the administrative court of Rabat on May 27, 2021. A decision which follows a complaint filed by the National Chamber of Film Producers (CNPF). Contacted by Young Africathe person concerned declared that he had “retired from public affairs”, preferring “no longer to speak about Moroccan cinema”.
The Cross and the Banner for Young Filmmakers
To get started in the business, young Moroccan producers have to go through a real obstacle course. “The current process is terribly procedural, deplores Lamia Chraibi. It is clearly a control management, penalizing first, and which is not intended to support creation and its creators, but rather to prevent young creators from setting up new structures or considering their first project. »
First, as the producer herself explains, it is necessary to obtain a discouraging number of documents from the CCM’s production department. These documents concern the right to exercise, the statutes of a company with a capital of 300,000 dirhams, an approval obtained for the production of at least three short films of a minimum of 15 minutes or a feature film .
At the same time, each project must employ a minimum number of technicians holding a professional card. And obviously, the filming authorization is only given after reading the script, the contracts of the technicians and the actors, and the technical and artistic list.
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While the power of the CCM seems sprawling, it has not had an appointed director for more than a year. After Mustapha Timi’s temporary assignment, another civil servant, Khalid Saïdi, also secretary general of the Ministry of Culture, took his place six months ago. A priori, no official appointment is possible before the implementation of the reform announced by the minister, Mehdi Bensaïd, last January. A reform that promises to be “global” but the details of which are encore unknown.