Women between careerism and Islamism: Moroccan cinema features diversity

The Moroccan Film Festival in Berlin highlights films made by women or dealing with women’s issues. The director of the Moroccan Cinema Center told DW what he finds most fascinating about the movies in the program.

Just before the opening of the five-day Moroccan Film Festival, held at the Babylon cinema in Berlin from May 2 – 7, DW met with the director of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), Sarim Fassi-Fihrim, who was responsible for the program. The festival’s focus is “Women in Moroccan Cinema.” None of the filmmakers were present at the event.

DW: How did you select the films presented during this festival?

Sarim Fassi-Fihrim: We had two very simple criteria. The first one was that we picked films directed by women, which is the case for four of the 16 movies in the program, so that was easy. The second one was that we selected movies dealing with issues affecting women. That was even easier, because there are also many male filmmakers dealing with women’s issues in their films.

Which films in this program are your favorite ones and what do they reveal about the situation of women in Morocco?

Sarim Fassi-Fihri (Moroccan Cinematographic Centre)

Sarim Fassi-Fihri, Director of the Moroccan Cinematographic Center

When I select films for a program like this one, I am interested in the diversity they depict. I’m not sure if 100 percent of these films were state-subsidized, but I know for sure that at least a dozen of them were. Knowing that these are publically funded movies and seeing the diversity of the issues they deal with is what I find most interesting. Every filmmaker is free to deal with a topic in the way they want to. That’s what’s important.

I have the impression that one of the recurring themes in many of these movies is that they depict women trying to follow their professional and personal aspirations while dealing with the pressures of traditional values, am I right?

That also happens. Just like in other societies, women aim to grow and to find their way. I would almost say that this is a universal theme for women; they are trying to overcome the difficulties of society. You see the salary gap in France for a woman and a man with the same qualifications, for example. On different levels, it remains a universal issue.

The filmmaker Laïla Marrakchi, who was boycotted by Islamist militants when her film “Marock” came out in 2005, said in a recent interview that she was witnessing the radicalization of Morocco and that religion was gaining significance in society. The film “Veiled Love Affairs,” by director Aziz Salmy, also sparked controversy among authorities of the ruling Islamist party. Is the rise of religious fundamentalism currently affecting artistic freedom in the country?

No, I would say that, especially in film, there was basically a counter-movement. By this, I mean that when the Islamists formed the government in 2012, most filmmakers believed that they were obliged to defend themselves even before they were attacked. In other words, as soon as they saw the Islamists arrive, they expected to be censored and to be asked to avoid certain topics or to deal with them differently. So filmmakers strongly defended themselves from the start, but there wasn’t any real confrontation between Islamists and filmmakers.

Do films therefore manage to deal with topics that would otherwise be avoided in the country?

Cinema is sometimes the easiest way to say things in a country like Morocco. Cinema offers more freedom. It is a media that reaches all households through television and reaches the most people, as more of them will watch a movie than read a book.

The documentary “Dance of Outlaws” portrays a young woman’s marginalized existence, banned by her family after she was raped and impregnated as a teenager. Is such a situation common in Morocco and what is being done to change mentalities towards traditional codes of honor and forced marriages?

There is no traditional code of honor in the way we hear about it in the Middle East, where women are killed after being raped. That doesn’t exist in Morocco. There are laws, just like everywhere, against rape. After that, there’s the weight of society, and it’s sometimes heavy to carry in traditionalist societies.  These traditions make it even more burdensome in some cases.

I previously mentioned diversity. Such a film reveals a completely different world, compared, for example, with the program’s opening film, “Rock the Casbah.” The thing they have in common is that both films were state-subsidized, and that the filmmakers had the freedom to express themselves and to provide their point of view. We have on one hand a society that’s very traditional, and on the other, that’s quite occidentalized. From there, you have to find the balance.

From our perspective, there nevertheless appears to be a large gap between those two poles, between the part of society that’s very modernized and the parts that are left behind…

Yes, between a woman who’s an airline pilot and one who’s living in a rural society that is still strongly influenced by tradition, there’s absolutely a larger gap in Morocco than in Germany. Things have nevertheless evolved a lot, but we still need several decades of evolution. Yet the evolution is noticeable; women have access to all types of professions, for example.

Can this be felt among filmmakers as well?

Absolutely, I would say one out of four film directors is a woman. These are stronger numbers than in most of Europe.

What is the importance of promoting these films about diversity of backgrounds abroad, for example, through this festival?
It’s important because it shows a part of society that’s not well known in Germany. I’ve realized that because of the painful events that happened in Cologne a year and a half ago, Germans have an image that can lead to generalizations. It would be like thinking that just because some crazy Americans killed innocent victims, it would be normal to believe that all American citizens were killers.

Is it therefore now more important to build bridges between Germany and Marocco, after the massive arrival of refugees in Germany?

In all societies, there is good and bad, and that also applies to refugees. There are many reasons leading people to leave, not just economic ones. Some left for political reasons, for family reasons – and the mentalities of these people also differs. Not everyone is a killer, not everyone is a rapist, and not everyone is a doctor or an engineer. There’s good and bad everywhere, and the diversity of the films we are showing this week demonstrates this well.

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