How Black Power and Jazz Music Inspired Moroccan Rebel Cinema of the 1970s
With six Moroccan films on the program this year, the IDFA documentary festival has highlighted the North African country’s documentary film scene and its artists. For those wanting an introduction to Morocco’s cinematic history, a great place to start is ‘Before the Light Dies’, film historian Ali Essafi’s latest film, which receives its international premiere in Amsterdam this week. .
Using archival footage, jazz music, graphic novels and 1970s props, “Before the Dying of the Light” tells the story of the birth of Morocco’s film industry and the struggles that Indigenous filmmakers have waged against censorship. The light died under the repressive leadership of King Hassan II, who turned against artists such as director Mostafa Derkaoui, who made the independent film ‘About Some Meaningless Events’ (1974), and actress Leila Shenna , who played a femme fatale in the 1979 Bond film “Moonraker” before disappearing without a trace in the 1980s.
Born in Fez in 1963, Essafi is one of Morocco’s leading documentarians, videographers and columnists, with a particular interest in foreigners rebelling against authoritarianism. Among his previous films is ‘Crossing the Seventh Gate’ (2017), an intimate portrait of the marginalized poet, filmmaker and writer Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011), a director who remains something of a touchstone for Essafi – having discovered that Bouanani was writing notes on the history of Moroccan cinema for an unpublished manuscript, he has since collaborated with Touda, Bouanani’s daughter, and a book should appear soon.
“Before the Death of Light” was a dream project for Essafi, who was working as a filmmaker in France when he first realized he knew little about the history of cinema in his native country. “I started researching this movie 10 years ago,” he recalls, though he had his work cut out for him finding both the material and the classic films. “In Morocco, we don’t have access to archives,” he says. “So I started doing everything to watch films made by the pioneers of Moroccan cinema. By chance, I met a man now retired, an engineer with a passion for cinema, [who] kept at home everything related to Moroccan cinema. It was like a real cinematheque in Morocco.
The crown jewel of this man’s collection was a VHS copy of “About Some Meaningless Events”, which at the time was the only known copy of the film in the world. And when the Sharjah Art Biennale commissioned Essafi to make a short film in 2011, he made a short film about Derkaoui, now 76, using fragments from the VHS copy to talk about the director, who was sentenced to 33 years in prison after completing the film.
This VHS copy sparked Derkaoui’s renaissance: after Essafi took her to the Cinémathèque de Tanger (CDT), as it was the only place in Morocco where he could share what he found, a woman who was working began a search to locate an original copy of the film. Long after leaving CDT, she found one in Spain, which was restored and performed at the Berlinale in 2019.
Looking back, what is remarkable about Moroccan cinema of the 1970s is the extraordinary effort that filmmakers put into making their films, despite the enormous personal risk they run. In his film, Essafi cleverly tells the story of secret screenings and the banning of ‘About Some Meaningless Events’ by weaving archival documents with the narration of Derkaoui, who was released 11 years into his sentence. .
With its jazzy score, found footage and news clips, Essafi’s documentary has a similar aesthetic to Göran Olsson’s 2011 documentary “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75.” It is a film that Essafi greatly admires, and that jazz music makes the connection between what was happening in the United States and events in Morocco. “The model for young revolutionaries in Morocco was the emancipation of African Americans, so jazz was a big part of that; it was freedom music. Until the early 80s, young people listened to a lot of jazz music.
Essafi has sent his film to Derkaoui, but he does not yet know what the pioneering director thinks of it, because, for a year, the aging director has lost his voice. “I’m sure he won’t email me anything, so I’m waiting to go back to Morocco to see him and get his reaction, like he writes it down on paper when he wants to communicate in person.”