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Casablanca Unbound

The New Urban Cinema in Morocco Jamal Bahmad

University of Stirling

This article examines the emergence of what I call the New Urban Cinema (NUC) in Morocco around the early 1990s. This term is suggested to replace the so-called New Moroccan Cinema (in capital letters), an exclusive and unsubstantial label which was invented by local journalists and international festival promoters. NUC will be analysed against the backdrop of the socio-economic and political climates of Morocco following the neoliberal market reforms of the 1980s. I will also explore the distinctive features of this new urban cinema by drawing on a few representative films. This task is carried out by identifying three strands within this cinema. The article concludes with a look at the crucial role of youth in the aesthetics and reception of this cinema. Cet article examine lavnement de ce que jappellerai le Nouveau Cinma Urbain au Maroc au dbut des annes 1990. Ce terme est propos pour remplacer celui du soi-disant Nouveau Cinma Marocain (en majuscules), une tiquette exclusive et sans aucune substance critique qui a t invente par les journalistes locaux et les promoteurs de festivals internationaux. Le Nouveau Cinma Urbain sera analys dans le contexte historique des climats socio-conomiques et politiques du Maroc la suite des rformes nolibrales des annes 1980. Je vais ensuite explorer les particularits de ce nouveau cinma urbain en sappuyant sur quelques films reprsentatifs. Cette tche est effectue en identifiant trois volets dans ce cinma. Larticle se termine avec un regard sur le rle essentiel de la jeunesse dans lesthtique et la rception de ce cinma populaire. Keywords: Abdelkader Lagta, Casablanca, Hicham Lasri, Moroccan cinema, New Urban Cinema

A tale of ordinary life in Casablanca, Abdelkader Lagtas Hub Fi Dar alBeida (A Love Affair in Casablanca, 1991) has at first glance nothing special about it to earn this film the pride of place it has been accorded in the annals of Moroccan cinema. Upon its theatrical release, in April 1992, however, this production performed a feat no other national film had done heretofore by drawing over 400,000 viewers to the cinemas. According to Sandra Gayle Carter, Love Affair owes its popular appeal to the fact that, in contrast to
Francosphres, vol. 2, no. 1 (2013) doi:10.3828/franc.2013.7


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national cinema hitherto, it more closely touched the sensibilities of the new Moroccan filmgoers.1 Looking at Lagtas film twenty years after its release, it is fair to say that not only did it reconcile audiences with national cinema, but it also pioneered a novel politics of filmmaking in the country. Spurred by the relative waning of King Hassan IIs authoritarian rule (1961 1999), the social consequences of the Structural Adjustment Programme implemented in 1980s, and, finally, an enhanced availability of public funding and screen time (in movie theatres and on national television) in the 1990s, what the national press and some film critics have called the New Moroccan Cinema announced its arrival not only with a love affair in the sprawling cityscape of fin-de-sicle Casablanca but also as an overdue rapprochement between national cinema and a large domestic audience.

The New Urban Cinema: take one

To begin understanding NUC, one has to problematise journalistic claims about Moroccan cinema in the 1990s. Given that scholarly literature on this cinema is still in its infancy, press reviews hold sway in what people think and say about it. In the pioneering studies of Roy Armes and Sandra Carter, there is no adequate account of the cinematic renewal ushered in by the success of Lagtas Love Affair. Armes surveys film production from the 1960s to the early 2000s with a comparative view towards the cinemas of Algeria and Tunisia.2 Carter in turn notes changes in the Moroccan film scene in the early to mid-1990s. However, she only reconstructs in passing what has become an ecumenical belief among the local film commentariat: Love Affair breathed new life into Moroccan cinema.3 What is missing from this account is the nuance that would put NUC in perspective without trapping itself in the proclivity of journalists and festival promoters to create a sea of confusion by announcing the advent of a new wave every few years. Unlike the body of journalistic commentary, Carter eschews the term New Moroccan Cinema even if she stops short of exploring the aesthetics proper to the cinematic changes in the 1990s that engendered NUC. In an article published in 2002, Kevin Dwyer provides an anthropologists view of this transformation by relating it to the dynamics of cultural globalisation. Home-grown films are
1 2 3 Sandra Gayle Carter, What Moroccan Cinema? A Historical and Critical Study, 1956 2006 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), p. 18. Roy Armes, Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005). Carter, p. 18

Casablanca Unbound: The New Urban Cinema in Morocco


increasingly popular in Morocco, he writes, reflecting the changing tastes of film audiences and their growing desire to see themselves and their own society represented on the large screen, rather than yet another representation of life in the West.4 Whilst this broad assertion is not untrue, it, too, does not address the complex urban, social, and filmic dynamics that led to the birth of NUC and the transformation of Moroccan cinema in its aftermath. What is therefore needed today is a critical examination of NUC from the vantage point of its historical conjuncture, particular modes of production, distribution and exhibition, and politics of representation. Despite its role as the quintessence of NUC, urban is the critical element that has eluded the purview of journalistic and academic commentators alike. My contention in this article is that around the early 1990s a popular movement of urban cinema revitalised the Moroccan film scene, which had until then been dominated by paradigms that failed to establish an indigenous tradition of cinema veritably popular with its postcolonial public. In contradistinction, the new popular urban cinema has been characterised from its inception by what the filmmaker Mohammed Abderrahman Tazi describes as a politics of proximity between the filmmakers and their audience.5 On a deeper level, as I hope to demonstrate, this politics of proximity denotes NUC films diagnosis of neoliberal Morocco through a focus on everyday life and ordinary people. This attention to urban everyday lifes residue of contradictions and subversive potential allies NUC with audience expectations. The demographic and social consequences of post-1983 market reforms on everyday life in Morocco in general, and cities in particular, the political economy of the cinematic sector and the transnational routes of filmmakers and funding sources are the crucial elements that we need to probe for an adequate understanding of NUC.6

The New Urban Cinema: take two

Although NUC is marked by a realist focus on social issues, its representational arsenal is not a homogeneous whole. From the diversity of genres to the
4 Kevin Dwyer, Moroccan Film-making: A Long Voyage through the Straits of Paradox, in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, ed. by Donna Lee Bowen and E. E. Early (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002), p. 351. Kevin Dwyer, Beyond Casablanca: M. A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 153. Shana Cohen and Larabi Jadi, Morocco: Globalization and its Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 37.

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filmmakers distinctive styles, this cinema has nothing of the relatively coherent aesthetic of cinematic traditions like Italian Neorealism or Third Cinema. The new realism of NUC is intrinsically variegated and no concerted attempts have been made by the filmmakers to give discursive coherence to the movement. Despite this striking heterogeneity in the Moroccan film scene in the 1990s, the local press and international festival organisers often referred to what emerged as the New Moroccan Cinema, a blanket label further popularised by the death of King Hassan II and the ascent to the throne of his son, King Mohamed VI, widely promoted as a liberal monarch keen on building a new Morocco from the ashes of the old. However, from a critical perspective, the organic continuities between national cinema, barely twenty years old at the time, and the 1990s cinema, on the one hand, and the absence to date of any scholarly treatise on the New Moroccan Cinema, on the other, should alert us to the problematic nature of this label. We should question the labels critical purchase and contest its reduction of the diversity of post-1990 Moroccan cinema. Whether used by festival organisers or taken up by the commentariat, the New Moroccan Cinema is a phrase out of kilter with Moroccan cinemas modes of enunciation, not to mention its social contexts of production and reception. This article will therefore explore the key features of NUC, which is what is often mistaken for the so-called New Moroccan Cinema. Unlike the latter term, what I have called NUC denotes a historically determined and aesthetically distinct movement of urban cinema which emerged twenty years ago and has gained critical substance and drawn ever-growing audience numbers over the years. NUC is a heterogeneous phenomenon which does not claim to be a programmatic movement of cinema. In concrete terms, NUC is the cinematic articulation of postcolonial identity in the post-1983 Moroccan city, particularly Casablanca as the metropolis which has been the stage of most films and NUCs critical diagnosis of the national condition under neoliberalism. This cinema is popular by virtue of its artistic innovations and a focus on pressing issues in Moroccans everyday life such as poverty, violence, and social inequality. This politics of proximity acquires a special edge in the case of Casablanca due to the metropoliss exemplification of flagrant levels of social inequality and existential insecurity in Morocco under globalisation. The diversity of the filmmakers social and formative backgrounds is at the centre of this heterogeneous cinematic movement. Geographical location, generational differences, funding sources, and training backgrounds have variably influenced the representational politics of individual filmmakers and their contributions to NUC and Moroccan cinema at large. Looking back at

Casablanca Unbound: The New Urban Cinema in Morocco


twenty years of NUCs existence, I can distinguish between three strands among its filmmakers. The first strand consists of Casablancan or Moroccobased cineastes like Hakim Noury (The Hammer and the Anvil, 1990; Stolen Childhood, 1993; The Dream Thief, 1995; A Simple News Item, 1997; A Womans Fate, 1998; Love Story, 2002; She is Diabetic, Hypertensive and Refuses to Die I & II, 2000/2005), Abdelkader Lagta (A Love Affair in Casablanca, 1991; The Casablancans, 1998; The Closed Door, 2000; Face to Face, 2003; Yasmine and Men, 2007), Mustapha Derkaoui (The Love Affairs of Haj Mokhtar Soldi, 2001; Casablanca by Night, 2003; Casablanca Day Light, 2004), Sad Chrabi (Women and Women, 1999; Jawhara the Jail Girl, 2003; Women in Mirrors, 2011), Ahmed Yachfine (Mysteries, 1995), Hassan Benjelloun (The Others Party, 1990; Yarit, 1993; A Womans Judgment, 2002; The Lips of Silence, 2001; The Friend, 2002; The Dark Room, 2004), Mohamed Asli (In Casablanca, Angels Dont Fly, 2004; Rough Hands, 2011), Abdelha Laraki (Mona Saber, 2001; Love in the Medina, 2011), Farida Benlyazid (Casablanca, Casablanca, 2002; Casanayda!, 2007) Ahmed Boulane (Ali, Rabia and the Others, 2000; The Satanic Angels, 2007; The Sons Return, 2011), and Aziz Salmi (The Veil of Love, 2008). These first-strand NUC filmmakers deploy production methods and aesthetic codes in relative continuity with the history of the pre-1990s Moroccan cinema. Born in the 1940s and 1950s, these directors had been working in national and international cinema as filmmakers, assistant directors, and producers. When the public funding schemes improved in the 1980s and, better still in the 1990s and 2000s, they took advantage of the states willingness to support cinema. Despite some continuity with their pre-1990s works, their NUC films testify to how Moroccan cinema altered its politics of representation and became popular by tuning in to the micro-histories of ordinary people struggling against the challenges of a fast-changing world. Everyday life in a neoliberal society has been the common ground between these veteran directors and a younger generation of filmmakers which emerged after the mid-1990s. The fourth edition of the National Film Festival in Tangier in 1995, which marked the centenary of cinema, remains a watershed date in the recent history of Moroccan cinema. New directors from the diaspora, second-generation Moroccan immigrants in Europe in the majority, were invited to screen their short films in the festival. The new cineastes met their old compatriots, discussions flourished about the state of national cinema, and the Moroccan Cinema Centre (CCM) promised to cast the net of its funding recipients wider to incorporate the new filmmakers. Their productions over the years have


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changed the face of Moroccan cinema. Comprising the second strand of NUC, directors with diasporic connections include Nabyl Ayouch (Mektoub, 1997; Ali Zaoua, 2000; A Minute of Sun Less, 2003; Whatever Lola Wants, 2007; My Land, 2010; Gods Horses, 2012), Narjiss Nejjar (Dry Eyes, 2003; Wake Up Morocco, 2006; The Rif Lover, 2011), Leila Marrakchi (Marock, 2005), Faouzi Bensaidi (A Thousand Months, 2003; What a Wonderful World, 2006; Death for Sale, 2012), Noureddine Lakhmari (The Gaze, 2005; Casanegra, 2008; Zero, 2012), and Ali Benkirane (Amal, 2004; Casa, 2006). These hyphenated directors were born in the 1960s through the early 1970s and live between Europe, North America, and Morocco. They learned their craft outside the patronage system of the local film sector. Whilst providing a glimpse into neoliberal Morocco through the eyes of its ordinary subjects, the films of this group of cineastes encourage a global perspective on local conditions. The attentive viewer can identify transnational echoes in these films so readily that they can be read as global cinematic works on Morocco today rather than exclusively endogenous articulations of local issues. This cinema of transvergence, to borrow a term from Will Higbee,7 is rooted in the local whilst speaking to the global. Put differently, even whilst remaining rooted in the local narratives and social geographies of Casablanca, NUC as a cinema of globalisation belongs with film movements around the Global South today. NUCs second strand is also remarkable for its success in the international festival circuit, thus securing the young filmmakers access to international distribution channels and additional or alternative funding sources. Lastly, the films in this category ally outstanding artistic quality to audience appeal. An interesting exception to this rule is Faouzi Bensaidi, whose films are wellgroomed pieces of world cinema. However, his success in the festival circuit has not attracted large domestic audiences to his self-reflexive films. Within my functional taxonomy of a three-stranded NUC, Bensaidi bridges the gap between the second and third strands. His difference from his peers in the second strand further puts paid to the New Moroccan Cinema label, which is often associated with the diasporic filmmakers in post-1990s cinema. The third strand of NUC is represented by a relatively younger generation of up-and-coming filmmakers with no definite aesthetic affiliations or neat transnational lineages. Born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hicham Lasri (The Iron Bone, 2007; The Angels Terminal, 2009; The End, 2010), Mohammed Achaour (A Film, 2011), and Swel and Imad Noury (Heavens Doors, 2006; The Man Who Sold the World, 2009) are the pioneers of this
7 Will Higbee, Beyond the (Trans)National: Towards a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema(s), Studies in French Cinema, 7.2 (2007), 85.

Casablanca Unbound: The New Urban Cinema in Morocco


experimental and unapologetically subjective cinema of globalisation. They draw on postmodern motifs to explore the subjectivity of Moroccans today. This third group of NUC shares the self-conscious filmmaking of the second strand whilst taking film grammar to new heights (sometimes at the risk of alienating large audiences beyond a small cinephilic base). Their films exhibit a penchant for formalist experimentation by incorporating MTV aesthetics, TV advertising techniques, and the convergence culture of sci-fi movies and the new media. Lasris The End and the Noury brothers The Man Who Sold the World (original titles in English), for example, are the work of young filmmakers striving to distinguish themselves from the rest of NUC. In The End, we are confronted with a post-apocalyptic Casablanca, an urban desert and saturated digital landscape of visual and aural simulacra. With the streets deserted and the cityscape opaque, it is difficult to determine what exactly is happening where despite the wealth of codes in urban and filmic space, especially enhanced by the visual and aural references from local and global popular culture. Whilst this semi-silent black and white film is meticulously rooted in the socio-spatial fragments of neoliberal Casablanca and Morocco, its dense narrative elements and cinematic techniques make The End markedly different from the bulk of NUC and its realist consensus. In addition to self-conscious grammar, the cinema of the third strand is populated not by well-rounded characters but rather by an assortment of sundry visions. The fragmented narratives and formalist aesthetics of Achaour, Lasri, and the Nourys films have implications for NUCs appeal to local as well as international audiences, on the one hand, and for the articulation of postcolonial subjectivities in urban space, on the other.

The New Urban Cinema: take three

The three strands of urban cinema sketched above are indicators of a diversity of approach and a plurality of experience within NUC. However, a socialrealist focus on everyday life and ordinary people in a globalising city and world is the common thread that gives NUC its unique alchemy of audience appeal, artistic quality, and socio-political critique. Whether one is watching Hakim Nourys melorealistic films about the salaried class in Casablanca in the 1990s or his sons Imad and Swels formalist portrayals of existential angst among youth in the metropolis in the new century, NUCs poetics of the real in narrative and staging assails us with a breathless immediacy and the sheer heterogeneity of postcolonial subjectivity under neoliberalism. To hammer


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home the continuities and discontinuities between the three strands of NUC further, let us look at three films by three different directors and set in Casablanca at two different stages of its postcolonial history: the developmentalist stage from independence in 1956 to the early 1980s, and the neoliberal stage thereafter. Latif Lahlous Spring Sun, which is widely regarded as the first Moroccan film, was released in 1969 to critical acclaim. Set in Casablanca in the wake of the urban uprisings of 1965, the film follows a young man as he tries to find his way in a city that challenges his rural values. The film is influenced by the French New Wave and draws an arresting portrait of the protagonist as a young man in Casablanca. His urban saga is sombre and the film closes on uncertain tones, thus intimating the ambivalent march of the Moroccan nation in postcolonial times. The film foregrounds the failure of the postcolonial subject to experience modernity without compromising his traditional values. This focus on nostalgia for past plenitude and the collective destiny of the nation is one mainstay of the cinema of the period. Another is the collective representation of the city as a monstrous body that corrupts human character. Lastly, the films unpopularity is not due to any esoteric obsession on the part of the filmmaker. Spring Sun was made with a large popular audience in mind in what was then a massively rural and poor kingdom. However, the directors awareness of the absence as yet of a market for national cinema shaped his aesthetics and especially the films anticipation of its national audience. Spring Sun seamlessly weaves in the coming audiences preoccupation with modern individualism and the disembedding impact of urban life on collective identity. The cynical attitude of the filmmaker and his implied audience make the nation the mise en scne of Spring Sun in similar fashion to Moroccan cinema before the 1990s when NUC emerged as the cinema of neoliberal society. The second film is Laila Marrakchis Marock (2005), a Franco-Moroccan production set in Casablanca. The year is 1997, and Rita, Youri, and their upper-class classmates are in the last year of high school at the prestigious Lyce Lyautey. Marock captures not only the autobiographical elements of Marrakchis days in her native Casablanca before she left for France, but also the zeitgeist of a neoliberal metropolis and country approaching the end of the millennium. It does so through the story of Rita, who stands in the filmmaker as the beautiful daughter of a Muslim bourgeois family, and Youri, a Jewish native of Casablanca. Largely non-observant of their religious affiliations except perhaps Ramadan and Mimouna, both Muslims and Jews belong to the upper echelons of Moroccan society. Their way of life in upmarket suburbs cuts them off from the rest of the citys less-privileged inhabitants.

Casablanca Unbound: The New Urban Cinema in Morocco


Things get complicated in the film when Youri and Rita fall in love in face of the disapproval of society on their cross-faith bond. This love affair foregrounds the tale of Casablanca as an urban society divided along class lines and growing conservative in its mores.8 A combination of factors makes this film a work of NUCs second strand: its setting in neoliberal Casablanca, domestic controversy, and a transnational aesthetic and distribution. Marock touched a nerve about Moroccan society today through its autoethnography of Casablancas upper class and its relationship to the rest of society. Like other films of the second strand, Marock was a succs de scandale: it was met by negative press at the National Film Festival in 2005 and engendered polemics in the conservative and the liberal media. The controversy provided free publicity for Marrakchis film. The last example in this discussion of NUCs aesthetic features and stylistic diversity is Hicham Lasris The End (2010), a millennial black-and-white film set in Casablanca circa 1999. Deploying a dazzling combination of fast shots and special effects characteristic of the MTV clip and commercial ads, Lasris second feature film tells the tale of a city on the edge through the story of Mikhy, a disaffected youth caught between loyalty to a ruthless police commissioner and love for Rita, a dumb beauty jealously guarded by her gangster brothers. Like the Noury brothers Heavens Doors (2006), The End is a contingent experiment in social realism to render urban subjectivities on the screen. The film is also traversed by violent language and action to an extent unprecedented in NUC. This experimentalism in theme and form challenges common approaches to postcolonial cinema because of its global provenance and representation of a city increasingly shaped by the transnational circulation of images, capital, and ideologies. A by-product of post-Fordist capitalisms spatio-temporal configurations of class and culture, postmodernism has gone global beyond its Western birthplaces to faraway spaces in a Global South socially fractured by neoliberal policies. Often vehemently attacked by local film critics, Lasri and NUCs third strand work with the existing Moroccan city, rather than the national-popular ideology, as the mise en scne for their visually exquisite and affectively visceral films. In addition, beneath the veteran filmmakers and critics doubts about third-strand NUC lie in its sophisticated take on the present and future of postcolonial subjects (as I will reveal shortly). Lasris and other NUC filmmakers zoom in on the everyday of ordinary subjects in Casablanca and in the process unveil

Mohammed El Ayadi, Hassan Rachik, and Mohamed Tozy, LIslam au quotidien: enqute sur les valeurs et les pratiques religieuses au Maroc (Casablanca: ditions Prologues, 2007).


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and construct what Fredric Jameson calls cognitive maps of and beyond the neoliberal present.9

A young audience The End brings us full circle to the important question of NUCs audience. The last component in the tapestry of factors behind this cinemas success is its largely youthful audience. This is partly a reflection of a society where youth are numerically the dominant age group and partly evidence of the appeal of NUCs social realism to youth in post-1983 Morocco. In their histories of Moroccan cinema, neither Carter nor Armes dwells on this crucial factor. Shana Cohen and Larabi Jadi have argued that the Structural Adjustment Programme of the IMF affected the class ecology of Moroccan society by swelling the underclass, weakening the middle class, and empowering a small but powerful upper class.10 Up and down this class spectrum, it is the habitus of youth as societys dominant age group which has been most affected by market reforms and the disembedding forces of globalisation. From Lagtas Love Affair in 1992 to Nabil Ayouchs Gods Horses (official selection at Cannes 2012), NUC is thematically and politically a cinema of and about youth in urban space in a country where over half of the 33 million population lives in cities (with 12 per cent in Casablanca alone). NUCs youth connection rests on two elements: thematic appeal and aesthetic innovation. Regarding the former, a cinema of social issues could not have existed and thrived without the existence of legions of unemployed and disaffected youth who find themselves caught between the hard place of poverty and the rock of global capitalisms disembedding flows. In contrast to the pre-1990s cinema dominated by patriarchal themes and national allegories, NUC screens the present of a youthful society and arrests national time by focusing its lenses on everyday life in sprawling cityscapes. Taking advantage of the film mediums capacity for entertainment and its critical belatedness vis--vis the mass and new media, NUC offers its audience the opportunity to see anew and reflect on the everyday. Through this defamiliarisation of everyday life, the audience glimpse their collective structures of feeling and both the alienation and potential for change that traverse their quotidian realms. In this
Fredric Jameson, Cognitive Mapping, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 352. 10 Cohen and Jaidi, Morocco. 9

Casablanca Unbound: The New Urban Cinema in Morocco


complex network of representation and reception, NUC has come to assume a primary position in the mediation of the social and youths habitus in urban and national contexts. A related dimension of the thematic component of NUCs youth connection is its chutzpah in tackling taboo subjects. Violence, corruption, class struggle, sexuality, Islam, and the Lead Years (19561990s) are some of the topics that the filmmakers have tackled head on or used as the mise en scne for their celluloid tales of urban life. NUC directors have made films in the last twenty years that delve deep into the social and political problems confronting Moroccans in their long march down the fraught path of postcolonial modernity. Hakim Nourys Simple News Item, Abdelkader Lagtas The Casablancans, Sad Chrabis Jawhara, Hassan Benjellouns Dark Room, and Narjiss Nejjars Dry Eyes are among an increasing number of NUC films to have resonated with audiences and contributed to public debate about human rights, memory, citizenship, and culture in Morocco today. Although Casablanca was one of many places that housed clandestine detention centres during the dictatorship of King Hassan II, NUC frames its stories of the metropolis against the background of a national space haunted by the persistence of memory in the present. Besides this topical subject, other overwhelming thematics addressed are the gender question in general and sexuality in particular. Although this social question has always been present in one form or another in the history of Moroccan cinema, the new urban films are unique in tackling the issue through a daring and sophisticated lens befitting of a youthful society transformed by accelerated urbanisation and the rising marriage age, among other sociological changes. An urban, popular, and brazen cinema, NUC arrived with Love Affair in 1991 and has ever since engaged with the new realities and changing times of Moroccan society. NUC relies on the desire for and partiality of a youthful audience to see new images of society. However, this is not a cinema about youth but crucially by young people themselves, particularly in its second and third strands. Reflected on its screen are youths values and everyday life as they see and experience them. With regard to the second component of NUCs youth connection, namely aesthetic innovation, it is noteworthy that Moroccan cinema changed face in the 1990s so radically that the celluloid classics of the 1970s and 1980s look like films from another country. Moroccan national cinema in its early decades was driven by a thematic grid centred around patriarchy, pastoral imagery, and a cerebral aesthetic of national allegorism. Despite the experiments of Ahmed Bouanani, Nabyl Lahlou, and Mustapha Derkaoui, most


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veteran directors were not keen on making stylistically self-conscious films. NUC, in contradistinction, has championed aesthetic innovation in all its three strands. The filmmakers have benefited from the emergence of a youthful and image-literate audience that has come of age in a country permeated by the influx of images from transnational cinema and other screen cultures. A successful NUC film today is one that allies a daring approach to social issues with technical innovation. The youthful audience seems not to appreciate being paternalised or taken for uninitiated spectators, as the success of certain films and the failure of others demonstrate. Although it has yet to be accepted by the mainstream theatre circuit, the stimulating and wayward aesthetic of third-strand NUC directors has notched up popularity among an expanding fringe of highly educated spectators who came of age during the digital revolution and consume as much cinema as other visual media everyday. The MoroccanSpanish Noury brothers and the Casablancabased Lasri and Achaour entertain closer ties with the young audience base in Moroccan cities and nationwide than the other strands of NUC. In a related manner, the technical innovation of NUC, especially in its second and third strands, is predicated on an awareness of the changing landscape of film viewership. The appropriation of video and new media motifs in the films of Lasri, for example, can be said to be partly preconditioned on an awareness that many of the audience will watch his films on the small and interactive screens of their devices rather than exclusively on the big screen. For beneath the new media and screen fertilisation in his films lies a consciousness of an increasingly individualised society where younger members of the audience expect films to seduce them through both form and content. This partly goes to explain the soaring popularity of NUC in spite of the decline of cinema-going across the country, where neighbourhood and small town theatres have all but disappeared (even if the rise of thriving multiplexes promises the continuity of cinema as a public ritual).11 No survey of NUC would be complete without evoking its neorealist strategies. In their attempts to underscore the everyday life of Moroccan subjects, NUC filmmakers have adapted key ingredients of Italian Neorealism to the Moroccan context. Theirs is a postcolonial neorealism for the neoliberal age. From Lagta to the latest NUC comers, using first-time actors is one of the distinguishing features and conscious strategies of this cinema. It is a means of capturing the raw and everyday life of Moroccans in a fast-changing
11 Part of the neoliberal ecology of Casablanca and other big cities, cinema multiplexes cater primarily to the middle and upper classes that is, to people with leisure time and disposable income. The handful of global multiplex chains also threaten to become a monopoly.

Casablanca Unbound: The New Urban Cinema in Morocco


world where digital media assume an increasing mediatory role between subjects and their social reality. A second intersection of NUC and the global traditions of neorealism is on-location shooting. This aesthetic strategy embeds subjects in their everyday space. Alongside the realist effect on the spectator, shooting fictions on location allows the audience to appreciate the city as more often than not the major character in the films.


NUC is neither a nouvelle vague (new wave) nor a school of cinema. It is instead a heterogeneous movement of urban cinema that emerged in response to the historical evolution of Moroccan society, particularly in urban space, following neoliberal market reforms launched in 1983. Sparked by a combination of demographic, political, and economic factors, NUC burst onto the national stage after the release of Lagtas popular feature Love Affair in 1992. The advent of a new generation of directors after the mid-1990s further anchored the new urban cinema in its local and global conditions of production and reception. The growing levels of social inequality, youth disaffection, and the spectre of radical Islam have consolidated the social-realist aesthetic of NUC in its three major strands. To the observer of the aesthetics and dynamics driving the continuing appeal of this cinema, the youth-led uprisings in Morocco and North Africa in 2011 carry an uncanny air of dj vu. Moroccan filmmakers had been projecting a youthful and urbanised society increasingly emboldened to question social inequalities and political authority. NUC has reflected how market reforms of the 1980s and the following decades dissolved the social contract between the state and the people. More than any other art form or mass medium, cinema has been at the forefront of social and political change in Morocco since the 1990s.