Moroccan Cinema has remarkably distinguished itself during this century in terms of the quantity and quality of film production. This distinction owes its success to the country’s policy supporting national film production through dedicating a financial fund headed by an independent committee made up of intellectuals and film industry professionals. This policy yielded the production of more than a hundred short films, and about twenty-five feature films each year for the last few years.

While production of fiction films had the backing and contribution of the state, documentary film production hasn’t been given much attention nor has it benefited from equal funding. All this under the pretext that audiences are not responsive to these types of films.

As a reaction to this imbalance, which exposes a backward mentality of the officials responsible for the national film production sector, a group of “film die-hards” led by filmmaker Hakim Belabbes, also a professor of cinema at Colombia College and The School of The Art Institute in Chicago, decided to engage in the experience of independently producing a range of documentary films by young Moroccan Sahrawi filmmakers.


The birth of an idea


The idea of a “Film Lab” required a strong will in preparing the moral and material conditions which in turn would enable a group of young filmmakers to get into the creative act, for one year, with the assistance of a “wild bunch” of Moroccan and international experts. The southern Moroccan city of Laayoune was the chosen place. The project was launched in 2015, in the form of master classes and workshops about the documentary filmmaking process, during which Belabbes proved that real modern cinematic writing broke all genre barriers; those that previously differentiated between the types of films, that the storytelling process is always the basis, and that what makes the uniqueness of each film was the personal input and creativity in the way of telling the story.

Belabbes focused on the theory of the Italian author and scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini, who wrote “The Bicycle Thief”, directed by Vittorio De Sica, the founder of the school of Italian Neorealism, which believes that: “it’s not important to invent a story that looks like reality. But the most important thing is to tell reality as a story”.

Idea development workshops started and lasted for three months with a perspective of keen observation of the everyday and the quotidian in people’s lives and the spaces they occupy all from a filmmaker’s perspective; to find that angle of perception allowing each one to choose the path of her/his “visual writing style” in order to get straight to the essence of the idea and avoid the typical outdated and customary approach used in most simplistic and one dimensional films and television shows. The result was the adoption of a extremely intuitive process of creative cinema which consists of making one’s personal point of view the essence of her/his process and peels off the cloak of an all illusive neutrality as if cinema were a thesis or an argument.


Writing workshops


The workshops continued on a virtual basis for three months. Moroccan filmmaker Hakim Belabbes, American film professor and producer Don Smith, cinema and aesthetics professor Hammadi Gueroum, Tunisian cinematographer Amine Messadi, sound engineer Samir Mellouk and Swedish post-production supervisor/colorist/VFX-artist Peter Cohen all mentored these sessions. The selected theme was “The Sahara”, as a space of observation, contemplation and reflection.

During this creative process, the desert theme led to discoveries characterized by rich content that included an enlightened and spiritual mythology. To indulge the observational and receptive capacity of the young filmmakers to represent these dimensions, the mentoring team chose the Japanese Haiku poetry as a means that seemed closest to this kind of cinema. The Haiku can effectively catch those bright, invisible moments in time and space to make them visual and aural. The Haiku poetry model gives procedural values to the emerging filmmakers needed to keep in mind four essentials: simplicity, accuracy, intelligence, and imagination.

The selection of topics was individual and personal. On the other hand, building up each project and sketching a corrective plan was collective. The writing workshops resulted in twelve projects.


Shooting stage


The film production phase took place in the cities of Laayoune, Smara, Guelmim, Sidi-Ifni and Dchira, which are spaces with their own specificity and symbolism in the Sahara imagination.

Students were divided into four teams composed of a director, cinematographer, a sound engineer and a production assistant. Each team used very light, sophisticated technical tools, in order to facilitate the shooting process. This strategy helped save money and time thus relying on the technique of “Guerrilla filmmaking“ often used in times of war and disasters, creating a professional, accurate and urgent dynamic. The intention behind this efficient production process was to mitigate production hurdles that usually stand in the way of many emerging filmmakers.


Editing stage


After three weeks of shooting, the filmmakers learned how to capture the invisible/the unseen which is the core of a cinema that focuses on the essence of full meaning. Belabbes gave a master class around the aspects of film editing, considering it the last part of writing a film. It is an essential phase in the film life cycle, also in defining its destiny.

The editing process was punctuated with theory lessons to help the student-filmmakers decode some of the dilemmas associated with the artistic and aesthetic choices in terms of the intensity of shots, their length, their speed, and pacing all to create a harmonious rhythm fitting the theme of the film. Some of the movies went through more than five different edit attempts that were debated and discussed at length before settling on a final version.

Belabbes assured the students during this stage that thinking about the editing starts from the script writing stage and gets reinforced during the shooting. Because a true filmmaker is basically possessed and haunted by images inside of her/him, that are looking for a way out to existence. A process that reinforces the notion that what we express through the cinema is not only meant to be understood, but is also meant to “not be understood”, but felt. This type of cinema seeks to create and reinforce a sense of uncertainty in the way a filmmaker conceives of the world around them. A cinema that creates a kind of drift between the self and the usual perceived reality, to crack those reassuring certainties, and create a dynamic of constant search for moments of truth and meaning in the depth of things and people.


Little money, much will in creativity


This outstanding experience achieved what the whole country’s official institutions couldn’t achieve for Moroccan youth. This initiative gives novice filmmakers the confidence needed and deserved and allows them to speak out their dignity in the face of the usual overwhelming boasting about superficial folkloric images that are constantly drumming for official speeches and building demagogic fantasies in order to extend the rope of lies and expectations.

So, a little bit of money and a whole lot of will in creativity is eventually enough for young women and men to reach their ambitions, regain their dignity, and pave a path toward the future.
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Hakim Belabbes, Don Smith and Hammadi Gueroum.
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