A Cinematic Family Album for Morocco
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A Cinematic Family Album for Morocco

Exterior view of Cinémathèque de Tanger
Exterior view of Cinémathèque de Tanger

Tangier–a city romanticized, exoticized, and immortalized in film and literature; a city on the Strait of Gibraltar’s watery frontier between Africa and Europe that thousands try to cross despite the legal and physical barriers; a city rapidly changing under the pressures of urban redevelopment and global tourism; the city where artist Yto Barrada lives and works. Born in Paris to Moroccan parents and raised in Tangier, Barrada’s artwork is deeply rooted in the contemporary political and social realities of her Moroccan hometown. Her films, photographs, and sculptures address topics ranging from postcolonial immigration to urban development, strategies of resistance to family myths and memories.

In her Walker exhibition Album: Cinémathèque Tangier, Barrada explores many of these same subjects while creating an album of Morocco’s rich cinematic culture. The multilayered installation features vintage and artist-commissioned movie posters and other ephemera alongside a selection of Barrada’s work, including her sculpture Palm Sign (2010)–palm trees being an important symbol in Barrada’s artistic interrogation of rapid modernization and the impact of the tourism industry on Morocco’s ecosystem–and her film Hand-Me-Downs (2011), which explores family narratives through a montage of Super 8 home movies found at Moroccan flea markets. Two of Barrada’s earlier films–Beau Geste (2009) and The Magician (2003)–will also be shown. Additionally, the screening program includes short films from the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson collection and the collections of the Cinémathèque de Tanger, an independent cinema and film archive that Barrada founded with a group of artists and filmmakers in an abandoned art deco movie palace, formerly called Cinéma Rif, on Tangier’s main market square.

Barrada’s work as artistic director of the Cinémathèque de Tanger compliments and extends her Tangier-based artistic practice. Since 2006, the Cinémathèque de Tanger has served as a social, cultural, and educational center for young and old alike and has hosted film screenings, workshops, and festivals. The cinémathèque also houses a notable archive of classic and contemporary North African films as well as found footage from the colonial era and homemade Super 8 tapes. In addition to preserving North Africa’s cinematic culture and cultivating collective memory, the cinémathèque aims to “promote world cinema in Morocco and Moroccan cinema in the world.”

Below, Barrada joins fellow Moroccan artist and Cinémathèque de Tanger co-programmer Bouchra Khalili to discuss the Cinémathèque’s origins as “an intervention by artists in the space of the city,” its impact on the local community, and its future as a North African cultural center.

A Crazy Idea

Bouchra Khalili: It all started with the building. Its beauty, its location, its history, the need to restore it. It had to be saved, but for what purpose? The very notion of a cinémathèque was fiercely disputed: wasn’t it too pretentious? Did the city really need one? All the more so because in Rabat there’s a national film theater, with a fabulous collection of Moroccan films. But Rabat is a three-hour drive away… Henri Langlois’s example was decisive: the Cinémathèque française started in Langlois’ apartment with reels that he even kept in his bathtub. This smuggler’s work, somewhat do-it-yourself, we wondered how to make it our own, how to really anchor it in our territory.It was at Casa Barata, Tangier’s extraordinary flea market, that we fully realized that we were founding a cinémathèque. We were literally picking up Super 8 reels, older than we were, off the ground, and dreaming about the treasures they might contain. Hence the idea that we had to go through the garbage cans, the attics, where a whole part of our history is nesting, a part that remains unknown because it was never shown to us: family films, anonymous archives, including from the colonial period. Putting a collection together also meant piecing our collective family album back together.

Yto Barrada: We immediately imagined a place that was a port, like Tangier. A place that makes you dive into the history of film, its genres, its geography, the movements that made it up… and a place that contains a collection, in order to offer the people of Tangier a varied, high quality program, freed from the domination of the commercial films that are traditionally distributed in Moroccan cinemas. But when you have a different idea of programming, you have to reinvent the whole apparatus. The strength of the Hollywood system has to do with the way it makes the life of theaters and the distributors easier. Everything is handed over ready to go: 50 copies of the same film come into the country at the same time, pass through censorship, with all the advertising material—posters, trailers, photographs. Ready to consume. But the usual distribution circuits don’t exist in Morocco. Access to films is a real challenge. With the three local distributors (and all the films that don’t have one) we had to build a new distribution network to get the movies we wanted to screen and self-produce the advertising material to go with them. For the visas it’s complicated as well: the agents are used to approving a handful of films in a given year, which are shown in many cinemas at the same time. We ask them to watch hundreds of new films every year.

A Historical Place

Khalili: In 2003, when I saw the Rif for the first time, it was similar to the old cinemas in my town, Casablanca: a graveyard for bad Indian films at the end of their screening career. A rather dodgy place, where part of the audience did not necessarily come to see the film. But the Rif had its heyday in the 1970s. At that time there was often a riot on new Indian films’ opening nights, and the usher sometimes had to take up the cudgels to discipline the crowd of fans of Sashi Kapour or others.

Barrada: The sale of the lease for the Rif cinema triggered the project and a ten-year adventure. The Rif was one of the historic cinemas of Tangier together with the Vox, the Lux, the Alcázar, etc. It opened in 1938 and changed with the population of the city until it became a deserted place, full of charm, complete with wooden chairs and smokers. At the time we took it up it was a marginal venue in a center that was no longer central, a picture house with 600 empty seats except for a few groups of men who smoked inside and were constantly coming and going during the showings of terribly scratched copies of Bollywood movies subtitled in two languages.

Poster for Flight to Tangier, directed by Charles Marquis Warren (1953), from Cinémathèque de Tanger’s collection

The Context

Barrada: The national context was based on a new dynamic of the film scene: new Moroccan films met with critical acclaim and huge popular success; new government support for local production; new festivals created in every city… The tourist and therefore the economic import of the Marrakesh festival, which has become a big annual event, is beyond doubt. Everyone knows that it’s no longer enough to show films. Movie theaters everywhere are threatened by home cinema. One solution is to transform the cinema into a destination, an outing, a meeting place which offers what you won’t find at home: a café, a library, workshops, encounters and dialogues with filmmakers. A large part of our programming and our activities are aimed at educating the young audience to the world of images; we regularly organize sessions for schoolchildren and training workshops for amateur and professional filmmakers.

Khalili: It was a moment of transition, when Moroccan cinema was being renewed by young filmmakers, some of whom were rediscovering the power of documentary filmmaking. But it was also a very paradoxical situation, because in Tangier a lot of cinemas were closing. And we wondered if we weren’t crazy to want to create a cinémathèque, while the city and its inhabitants seemed to be losing interest in film altogether, when the multiplex was appearing as the solution to the question of film distribution in Morocco, knowing that the early 2000s was also the moment when the pirate DVD market soared. At the time nobody took us seriously. We did not belong to the world of cinema owners, but we were sure that the city needed a beautiful cinema, beautiful films, a cozy café. Today the café is always full, it’s the place where young people meet. And the collection of films, anachronistic and elitist as it may at first seem, is a treasure for that very reason.

Learning Patience

Khalili: As none of us were movie theater professionals or had any experience in the field, we had to surround ourselves with friends, with people who were interested both in film and in Tangier. Most of all we had to learn as we went along, including the specific vocabulary of this kind of activity. Learn to speak the language of the distributors, understand what a rights holder is, how to talk to him or her. Also learn patience, a great deal of patience, when confronted with a bureaucracy that sometimes seemed impenetrable.

Barrada: So we had to organize and come up with a master plan: (1) Fundraising, (2) Renovation work, (3) Creation of the institution, (4) Creation of the audience, (5) The longer term. Today we are in phase 4. We have the pleasure of seeing an audience emerge from every district of the city, or almost. About 600 children jostle every Sunday at the two Magic Lantern sessions.

An Audience for Tomorrow

Barrada: The Magic Lantern is our pride and joy: a film club for children from six to twelve, with a live presentation and a bilingual French-Arabic booklet. The model was conceived by a Swiss organization and has spread to a large number of European cities. With their help and support we started the Tangier film club right after we opened the Cinémathèque. This year we’ve been able to open another in Beirut, at the Metropolis. This is our fourth season and The Magic Lantern already has almost 800 members.

Khalili: Langlois said that it takes ten years to create an audience. These children are our audience for both today and tomorrow, for the future. They’ll grow up remembering the films they saw at the Cinémathèque and they’ll keep coming, because the experience of seeing films in a movie theater will have been part of their lives from childhood. Because they will have an awareness that cinema has a history, tells stories, and accompanies History.

The Collection

Khalili: I started to be a film lover in Paris, but that love has also grown around a lack. Of course I knew the Moroccan and Arab classics. But that lack is most of all a lack of images of our history. I have no films or photos that go back beyond my parents’ generation. I don’t know what my grandmother looked like when she was ten. When I first saw the images that Gabriel Veyre shot in Morocco in the 1930s, every time I saw a little girl I said to myself that my grandmother could have looked like her. And that’s the reason why I’m very proud that those films are a part of our archives, thanks to the generosity of Philippe Jacquier and Marion Pranal. But a family album is made to be handed down. To collect documentary and experimental production today is to build a collective history in order to tell it in all its complexity. That’s why colonial history also interests us greatly.

A House of Film

Khalili: The Cinémathèque de Tanger is a collection of films and two screens, but it’s also a film library, an editing room, training sessions/workshops, a café… That’s part of the idea that a cinémathèque is a free school, open to everyone. A school without teachers and without textbooks, where you invent your own connections. In other words, a wild, democratic knowledge that comes to life outside the institution, even if the term cinémathèque seems very institutional. It’s also a way of breaking the loneliness of young filmmakers and artists in the North of the country. Morocco is still centralized. Opening the Cinémathèque to young artists and to the aspiring filmmakers of the North of Morocco is a way of keeping them going, but also of offering them space for training, research, and creation. In the hope that they’ll take it over, that they’ll “steal” the place, make it their smugglers’ den, as Serge Daney said about movie theaters.

A view of the Grand Socco from Cinémathèque de Tanger. Photo: Sarah Keller © Cinémathèque de Tanger

What’s the Use?

Khalili: Objectively, it’s no use at all. It produces nothing. And it brings nothing in. In other words, its use is essentially to make problems for us! But seriously, I’d say that its use is not in “making” something, but in “showing” something to someone. Which is already a great deal. In French, we call those who make a profession out of showing films in cinemas “exploiters.” But we are not so much “exploiters” as “exhibitors.” Léa Morin, our manager, who has studied in the “exploitation” section at La Fémis, is not an exploiter in Tangier. She does a lot more: she opens windows. The “what for” then is in that gesture of showing, of opening windows on geographical, aesthetic, historical, and sometimes social and political horizons, which may seem distant when seen from Tangier, but which the experience of film makes close and contemporaneous.

Barrada: The Cinémathèque de Tanger first came into being in order to fill a void and bring a certain kind of magic back into the city. Cinemas were closing down, one after another. No schools, few filmmakers. At the same time that satellite dishes were popping up on every terrace in the city, European borders were closing with the implementing of the Schengen agreements. One hell of an atmosphere of isolation reigned in Tangier. Our motivations included both the safeguarding of a historic cinema, the need to preserve our archives, and the will to offer Tangier a real center for culture, for creativity, for debate which was lacking in a city of one million inhabitants which has some nice remains, but where there’s no theater, library or concert hall. The Cinémathèque also sprang from the will of a group of artists. So it must also be seen as an intervention by artists in the space of the city. It’s a project that tackles many questions about public spaces and the mutations at work in Tangier, which I ask in my own photographs or films.

The Joy of Programming

Khalili: We are proud of having organized a season devoted to Omar Amiralay, shown Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre musique (Our Music) and Ici et ailleurs (Here and There), Moumen Smihi’s The East Wind, Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee, Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Life on Earth, Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform, Mohamed Zineddaine’s Awakening, Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains… I could mention dozens, but I’ll stick to the ones that most clearly embody our concern to bring forth a kind of three-continent utopia of contemporary cinema. Tanger vu par–a selection of movies shot in Tangier or in a studio version of it, from all periods of film history–may be the program that is closest to my heart. No doubt because it’s one of the very first programs we dreamed about. But also because it absolutely anchors the Cinémathèque in the city of Tangier, and is a way of getting our bearings on the iconography, the imagery, the stories it has generated in Morocco and elsewhere.

Barrada: The discovery of Oskar Fischinger’s musical abstract films. The Tati retrospective, the Djibril Diop Mambéty or Jacques Demy retrospectives. We knew we had made it when the doors of the large cinema opened and 200 young men with their skateboards and their girlfriends came out singing the songs from The Young Girls of Rochefort. Another great moment was the projection of a phantasmagoria show in January 2010: a magic lantern session with hand-painted glass plates from the late 19th century with piano accompaniment. They were from the collection of Jerry and Meryl Butler of Tangier, who did their patter to a packed house.

Any Projects?

Khalili: Our drawers are full of them! That’s precisely the problem: plenty of projects and very few resources. Ideally, we’d like to devote a retrospective to Yousry Nasrallah, a window on films by Arab artists, a retrospective of the films of Jean Rouch… In short, dozens of projects, but which need money and support.

Barrada: We have a five-year strategy to develop the Cinémathèque and expand: in order to house a growing collection, to recruit staff, to find new audiences, to repaint the façade, to start a real artists’ residency… And to develop the NAAS (Network of Arab Arthouse Screens), which we co-founded with Tunis, Beirut, Cairo, and Ramallah. Tangier, like the whole country, is changing slowly. The relative local solitude within which we developed our project and the bureaucratic deadweight of an administration without a one-stop shop system are almost behind us now. Officials are beginning to show some interest in the Cinémathèque de Tanger and the model it’s experimenting with, and to understand that the competitiveness of our cities on a Mediterranean scale will also depend on the quality of our cultural infrastructure. In the shorter term we are hoping to show Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star with Sandra Álvarez de Toledo, who has just published a book about him, to invite Pedro Costa and at last to present an open-air season of sword-and-sandal movies and musical comedies on the Grand Socco, which the cinema overlooks.

This interview is reprinted from the book Album: Cinémathèque de Tanger, edited by Omar Berrada and published by the Librairie des Colonnes (Tangier) and La Virreina Centre de la Imatge (Barcelona).

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