Filming Morocco’s Lower Rungs On the Social Ladder

On the Edge (Sur la planche) – Leila Kilani, Morocco 2011

Death For Sale (Mort à vendre) – Faouzi Bensaidi, Morocco 2011

We were very well advised, at the outset of Tangier's just-concluded 13th edition of Morocco's National Film Festival, to see the two films that in fact came to win the top two prizes.


TALIM National Film Festival

Leila Kilani's Sur la planche, her first feature film, following her excellent 2008 documentary Nos lieux interdits, won Grand Prize.

This time her focus is on an unlikely caïd-ah (can the Arabic word for a local crime boss use this feminine suffix for the head of a group of amateur thieves?), a young woman whose day job is at one of Tangier's Free Zone factories, peeling shrimp by the thousand (she likes to count them, even though she's paid by the kilo, as a way of resisting what she calls slavery).

Sur la planche appears to have been filmed mostly at night and/or in the rain, so don't expect to see the usual Tangier vistas.  But for a glimpse of the world that most of only pass by on the way to Rabat – the sprawling Free Zone which employs thousands of young women like Badia and Imane – Sur la planche ("On the Edge" will be the international title) is cinéma vérité at its raw best.

Writer/director Kilani provides us with a single-minded Badia, intent on scrubbing out that smell of shrimp as intensely as she drives her foursome (pretty Asma and Nawal dabble in the seedy nightlife of illicit Tangier, the chance pickups with characters who might best be described as biznismen – traffickers, "importers," contrabendistas).  But it's not a "team;" Badia is too much the loner, both at work and in her extracurricular hours.  She is driven.

Sur la planche moves at a frenetic pace, perhaps Leila Kilani's way of getting us to appreciate the hard lives of these young women On The Edge.  The performances of apparently first-time actresses Soufia Issami (Badia) and Mouna Bahmad (Imane) are particularly impressive, and we expect to see them a lot more.  Jury – well done.

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Jury duty can't have been easy, because Faouzi Bensaidi's Mort à vendre – which won the Special Jury Prize – is a powerhouse of a movie, a film noir shot in the spectacular setting of nearby Tetouan, overlooking the Rif Mountains.  Though there is beauty out there, the action takes place in Tetouan's poor neighborhoods, where things are not always what they might seem.

Family breadwinner – and baker – involved in drug trafficking?  Job for big sister in a textile firm – steady work, much appreciated – but where she gets frisked exiting the factory in the struggle against contraband.  That long-haired beauty taking in the mountain view – but maybe she's a prostitute?  Mort à vendre ("Death For Sale" in international release) reserves many surprises for its characters, and for the viewing audience.

Tracing the – probably short – lives of three friends caught up in petty crime, Faouzi Bensaidi's film has themes familiar to the genre: street toughs getting into a league way over their heads; tough, world-weary cop (played by the director with gusto, and with the baggiest eyelids ever committed to film) who will extract a price for favors rendered; the hooker who needs saving by the film's "hero"…

But as with the other prize-winner, Mort à vendre is also a window into Morocco's underside, where people show up at nightclubs and blow their questionably-acquired wealth on overpriced drinks, where the street justice meted out to purse-snatchers can be swift and violent, where you might be "saved" by the brothers of the Islamist gang that patrols the woods, but you will be expected to help them in turn…

Tangier and Tetouan, Leila Kilani and Faouzi Bensaidi, Sur la planche and Mort à vendre – two prize-winning films which merit audiences beyond Morocco.  A few years ago, Moroccans were concerned about not only their film industry's annual numerical output, but also by the quality of the films produced.  I only have two years' worth of National Film Festivals to judge by, but I think that the depth of talent here rivals many a country with long cinematic traditions and much more means than Morocco.  Hats off to the winners.

Gerald Loftus

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