Six Major Works of the Maghreb: Exploring the World

The marker which defines the date of birth of the national cinemas of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – the Libyan and Mauritanian cinematographies having a very marginal existence – is that of the independence of these countries, i.e. 1962 for the first and 1956 for the other two. Between the beginnings of cinema and these dates, a rich colonial cinema developed with more than 200 fiction films and a few thousand documentaries, sometimes giving romantic images of the countries and their population.

The first “Moroccan” feature films are dated 1928. They are the work of Frenchmen Jacques Séverac, Léon Mathot and Henri Fescourt. In 1930, in The Rose of the souk, Séverac gives, for the first time, the main role to a Moroccan actress, Leïla Altouna. Many cinemas were built, Casablanca will have 14 in 1935. In 1944, the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM) was created, with the aim of co-producing and/or hosting works by renowned filmmakers (Welles, Becker, Hitchcock), shot on the spot. It is accompanied by the studio and laboratory of Souissi, opportunely built with French capital. But it is necessary to wait until 1958 so that The Cursed Sont, followed in 1959 by a second short, The violin (unfinished), signed Ahmed Belhachmi. It was only in 1968 that Mohamed Tazi Benabdelwahed and Ahmed Mesnaoui made the first feature film, win to live. Today, Moroccan production, the most prolific on the African continent, is rich and varied, between films mainstreamintended for the local public, and works of authors, many, feeding copiously the festival programming of the whole world.

Albert Samama Chikli was born in 1872 in Tunis into a wealthy family, belonging to the entourage of the heir to the throne, Mohammed el-Sadik Bey. A great traveler, he quickly became a correspondent for the Lumière brothers, from whom he drew inspiration to shoot the first aerial and underwater views of the country. He is also the first Tunisian author-director-producer, craftsman of two fictions, Zorahet The Daughter of Carthage, played by his daughter, Haydée Chikli. Under his influence, a timid movement developed, which did not have a lasting artistic legacy, with two original works: Tergui (Abdelaziz Hassine, 1935) et The Fool of Kairouan (Jean-André Kreuzi, 1937). The Tunisian cinema industry is however characterized by a kind of precocity and anticipation of the changes to come. In 1927, the first distribution company was created. From 1939 many cinemas opened everywhere, and a cinema truck traveled to the villages. In 1946, film clubs were born there which, under the authority of Tahar Chériaa, experienced spectacular growth. But it was not until 1957 that Tunisian cinema set up a state-owned company, the Société Anonyme Tunisienne de Production et d’Expansion Cinematographique (SATPEC) and that Chériaa created the first independent cinema review. The following year, Jacques Baratier turns Goha, who will represent Tunisia at the Cannes Film Festival. But it will take another ten years for the first feature film directed by a Tunisian filmmaker, Omar Khlifi, to see the light of day. A rich filmography will follow, nourished by fruitful individualisms – Selma Baccar, Nouri Bouzid, Kheltoum Bornaz, Nacer Khemir, Mohamed Zran, Moufida Tlatli, Raja Amari, Ferid Boughedir -, which establishes the cinematography of the country and gives it an international dimension. .

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Algerian cinema seems to have been born only of the war, its first act having been the opening of a film training school, in the maquis, directed by René Vautier. This is where a national cinema was really born, propelled by the proactive energy of Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina, Djamel Chanderli and Ahmed Rachedi, alongside French filmmakers, independence activists, such as Cécile Decugis and Pierre Clément. The first film of this period is Algeria in flames, mainly due to Vautier and became the cornerstone of the country’s cinematographic policy, with the intervention of the Ministry of the Mujahideen. Just before independence, the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic created a Cinema Committee, then the Algerian Radio-Television, the Office of Algerian News, the National Center of Cinema and the Algerian Cinematheque, as well as the Cinematographic Laboratory of the Committee Politics of the People’s National Army… Algerian cinema has been put in order and will remain so, despite some changes in form. The celebration of the heroism of the great figures of the War of Independence was therefore a priority objective, unlikely to stimulate a more independent and creative cinema. But an innovative spirit was felt in the 1970s, with Mohamed Bouamari and Abdelaziz Tolbi and, shortly following, in a context facilitated by obtaining the Palme d’Or in Chronicle of the Ember Yearswith Merzak Allouache, Farouk Beloufa or Mahmoud Zemmouri… This breath is still being felt, and more and more, with a contingent of still young authors who are shaking up the rules, but filling the programs of festivals around the world.

These cinematographies were born under the colonial aegis and were able, more or less easily, to emancipate themselves from it, following independence and despite new constraints, to outline their own history. They mark not a break with the films of their origins, but rather the blossoming of a resolutely new cinema, like the national cinematographies which had known how to make their update under the impetus of the New Wave… Their presence, now visible, in major international festivals and in cinemas, bears witness to this. But for all that, is there a Maghrebian cinema? Certainly not. Cinematography, perhaps. Writers, sure.

Gerard Vaugeois

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