Morocco in the Wing Mirror of Colonial Cinema: Anthropology of a Glance

“Of course, cinema is not the whole story. But without it, there would be no knowledge of our time.” – Marc Ferro

“To analyze colonial anthropological knowledge is to identify the prejudices and errors that have guided it. The sociology of knowledge would thus be reduced to a sociology of ignorance.” – – Hassan Rachik, Le proche et le lointain

“A starving man, a humiliated man, must be shown by name and surname; no fable for a starving man, because that is something else, less effective and less moral.”  – Cesare Zavattini.

Berber Symphony, 1947

A quarrel of images


First and taking heed of quite recent news: Cinema has been at the heart of major controversies involving the question of its relationship with society. The past year has been marked by two major events that could enlighten our debate with eloquent illustrations. In France, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the warmest color was denied an authorization of exploitation, in other words, a prohibition pure and simple from distribution in either movie theaters or through any other support. In Morocco,  Nabil Ayouch’s Much loved has been banned in conditions that speak volumes about our time. Two prohibitions attesting that images continue to arouse passionate reactions, beyond contingencies and procedures.


In France, the country that saw the birth of cinema, Kechiche’s film was banned after a long engagement with the courts which resulted in the decision of the Council of State. In Morocco, it was an unprecedented campaign both in its scale and its content that has led the supervisory authorities to act even before the film applied for a release authorization. Social networks have been exploited in a liberticide driven dance. Society has dictated to the state a position to the detriment of the law. In fact, we have gone from censorship from above (via the authorities empowered by the law) to censorship from below. It calls to attention a past where a film by Mohamed Achaoer was removed from movie theaters due to public pressure on the operator, yet the film did have official permissions. The use of the concept of “moral panic” coined by Anglo-Saxon theoreticians can help to understand how the encounter with certain images expresses the existence of a generalized feeling of anxiety as a result of profound upheavals in society in terms of values and lifestyles.

The case of Ayouch’s film is emblematic especially since the filmmaker has continued to develop around his film an escorting speech that does not hesitate to tap into the arsenal of film theory, to defend his aesthetic approach, concepts that have acquired legitimacy in the history of film, sometimes speaking of realism, sometimes “naturalism” or “naturalistic realism”..

What irked me the most was when he told a major French magazine (Télérama): “It is the reality of my country that I display”. This puts us in the thick of things. All these elements legitimize the need for an academic intervention that questions by the tools of the social sciences, the relations between the field of the symbolic production of which the cinema is an essential component today and the rest of sociology.

In this perspective, I remind you that cinema is not reality; it’s an oration about reality. And who says oration says construction from an enunciative system; a film is a discourse built, scripted, and staged around this reality. Neither documentary nor fiction can claim ‘reality’. We are in the logic of the representation that is the fruit of a look, from a point of view on the world. Nabil Ayouch, who is very familiar with the way advertising works, knows that, for example, for a thirty-second spot, it takes weeks of work, if not months, to reach a discourse that achieves its goal, its target. In arguing that Much loved “is the reality,” the filmmaker contributes to the confusion that reigns in our socio-cultural context with regard to the reception of images and the representation of the body, the intimate life or even certain aspects of social life. A confusion that feeds the quarrel of images that sometimes leads to breakages with tragic consequences.

Hence the importance of placing the debate on another level. Not that of the “why?” But “how?” That is, to situate the debate within the art of Cinematography and inquire in the substantive debate on the representation of the social in film. For example, Ayouch’s film poses the question of the relevance for a cinema that aspires to relay the real, the division between fiction and documentary. It is not certain that documentary can touch reality more than fiction. The documentary gives the illusion that we can capture the real … We must be humble, it’s an illusion. Because what is the real? I really like this definition that Serge Daney gives: “The real is what does not come back twice”.

Aware of this, Ayouch did not make a documentary, he made documented cinema. The real is fleeing, it escapes us constantly. What cinema shows us is an image of a reality perceived by a glance. The title of the article Le Monde devoted to the film is revealing: “Nabil Ayouch reveals his prostitutes on the Croisette”; the problem is thus recalled by referring to the author, his film, his writing work (upstream and downstream), editing, casting … Again, it is a matter of recalling an obvious: Much loved, they are not fair pictures, they are just pictures.

Pictures that will be examined in the light of the achievements of Cinema, social Cinema in this case. Read Ayouch’s film in the light of his own practice of the genre (Ali Zaoua in particular); in the light of the cinephilic filiation that he requires, from Bresson to Ken Loach via Pasolini but also Mostafa Derkaoui and Lagtaâ. And, in short, ask him questions about the cinematographic and political stakes of his choices. By giving himself as a project to unveil aspects of Moroccan society, he reveals himself in particular through the way he looks at bodies, gestures, voices, place. Who to film? How to film? By filming segments of society without autonomous expression (street children, the poor, prostitutes, the excluded …) he chooses a film choice that is eminently also a political choice. This is the debate we would like for movie, cinema and country. That debate’s future suspended for as long as that film’s future is.

Colonial cinema

It would then be useful to situate this problematic in a historical perspective in order to place it in a historicity where it would join the major intellectual questions that cross our cultural field. And by summoning in this sense the colonial cinema, I immediately find myself in the possibility of formulating a first hypothesis: from the colonial cinema of yesterday to the social cinema of today, I note the permanence of the same paradigm; that of a relationship dictated by relations of domination, colonists / colonized; dominant / dominated. In a way, we continue to produce the same political economy of images; There, we film the natives, here we film the poor, the lost, the outcasts and those excluded from the system. The other is confined to a position of object nourishing the same desire for exoticism: yesterday, a geographical and folk exoticism; today a social exoticism. Making images of exotic social and cultural environments generates a treatment of the image subject to domination …

An original sin that certainly weighs on a cinema born in the historical confrontation and which is still slow to find its anchor points in the national fiction. A brief historical flashback would allow us to broaden the perspective and give depth to the debate.

Talking about cinema and history in Morocco invites a first methodological proposal distinguishing: the history of cinema in Morocco Vs. the history of Moroccan cinema.

The history of cinema in Morocco, which is of particular interest to us, is almost the same age as cinema itself. The 7th art arrived in Morocco and the Maghreb, in general, a few months if not a few weeks after the world premiere of the Grand Café in Paris. I will then distinguish a few steps in the installation process of this invention:

Precolonial Cinema 1895-1919

Colonial Cinema 1919-1956

Postcolonial Cinema 1955-1961


Precolonial Cinema


Pre-colonial cinematography fits within the bassinet of cinematography’s childhood; this is the period that we could call the Fréres Lumiére years because they marked by the number of “views” shot by the brothers Lumiére. The brothers, after the overwhelming success of the first public screenings, have launched projectors around the world, image sensors to feed this new flourishing market, and satisfy the desires of an audience quickly falling into a new addiction. Since 1895 to1905, the catalog of films available includes over 1,800 films, of which nearly 60 are devoted to North Africa (mainly Tunisia and Algeria).

For the specific case of Morocco, this phase will be marked by the emergence of two names that will remain attached to the history of colonial cinema in Morocco: Félix Mesguich and Gabriel Veyre.

Félix Mesguich, operator of the Lumière brothers (of Algerian origin) is the forerunner of the image reporter for 24/24h news channels, or even the war reporter, whose aim is to report the events in their every detail. In his autobiographical account, he relates how, among the colonial troops, he filmed the massacres of Casablanca in 1907, following the intensive bombing of the city, as a prelude to the occupation of the country. Troops in a city whose devastated streets were strewn with corpses, from which rose a pestilential odor and clouds of flies “, in Crank towers (Paris, Grasset, 1933).

The other outstanding figure of this period is Gabriel Veyre. He will know a very special fate. A Moroccan fate. It deserves a special freeze-frame. Photographer, operator for the Lumière brothers, he rolls his “camera” around the world, from Cambodia to Venezuela … before returning home. He will be recruited by Sultan Abdelaziz as advisor and photographer: “I was resting on the outskirts of the Rhone after so many distant journeys when I learned that we were looking for a man, an engineer able to teach the Sultan of Morocco first of all about the photography that fascinated him..”

The French cameraman realized very quickly that the young King was fond of all new inventions: the telephone, the bicycle, the phonograph and … the movies. Gabriel Veyre took his mission seriously and fell under the charms of the people and the country. Engaged for a three-month contract, he remained with the sovereign for more than four years. And finally adopted Morocco; he will stay there, start a business, and prosper. He died in 1936 and will be buried in the Bensmsik (Casablanca) cemetery. From his stay at the royal palace of Marrakech and Fez, he collected material for his book, “Dans l’intimité du sultan : au Maroc (1901-1905)” where we find revealing notes on the reports of Moroccans to modernization; he especially took a lot of pictures. Very close to Sultan Abdelaziz, he tells us that the latter had adopted both the photo and video camera, not hesitating to film his family including his wives who watched the screenings of the cinematograph. “He gives them cinematograph sessions, and it is by this means that he has introduced them to some of the European life and has made them travel from home.” Veyre adds: “They rode a bicycle and Abdelaziz has cinematographed them.” From this excerpt, as from the whole of the book, we retain two basic information, from a historical point of view: we know that the first private screenings of the cinematograph took place very early at the Palais Royal around 1901; and we discover the author, so to speak, of the first Moroccan amateur film, in this case, Sultan Abdelaziz.

Events will take another turn. France will eventually colonize Morocco, officially from 1912; and cinema will very soon be one of the pillars of colonial politics. The number of films increases and the development of the cinema and its technical means lending hand, this cinema will go from the almost primitive phase of a documentary work in the first degree to the production of fiction, directed on the spot while keeping the same Scenario and visual program, denoting the permanence of a glance: hunt local colors, cultural practices and different lifestyles in an ethnographic perspective.

Colonial cinema

The first major fiction film will be shot in Morocco in 1919; “Mektoub” by Jean Pinchon and Daniel Quintin based on a scenario by Edmond Doutté, the famous Arabian ethnographer. Shot in Tangier, Casablanca and especially Marrakech; it develops a synopsis which announces the color and the ingredients of future productions: Ould Tahar, the son of a rich notable is called to face tumultuous events which shake his tribe. The timing and the film are a founding act not only because it is the first feature film shot in Morocco, Mektoub will pave the way for what will become a cinematographic genre, colonial cinema.

It must first be said that the concept covers a large territory; and in this specific case, the French colonial cinema-there is also a Spanish colonial cinema-concerns North Africa, French-speaking Black Africa, and Indochina. If we can also say that these are films made in these territories by French filmmakers, there is, however, debate about the constitution of the corpus itself and the duration that covers the genre. The reference book on the subject is “The Colonial Cinema, from Atlantis to Laurence d’Arabie” by Pierre Boulanger (Paris, Seghers, 1975). It gives us a set of elements some of which are open to discussion. He worked on a period going from 1911 to 1962 (his benchmarks concern Algeria more) and recorded during this period nearly 210 films of fiction: two dozen on Tunisia; more than 80 on Algeria and a hundred on Morocco.



A first remark concerns the number of films listed. For Morocco, it seems to me that within this body of work we must distinguish between the colonial film sensu stricto and the foreign shootings in Morocco. If Mektoub or The Son of the Sun are indeed colonial films, Lawrence of Arabia by David Lynn, shot partly in Morocco in 1961, or Orson Welles’s Othello  (1947-1952) belong rather to the category of films foreigners shot in Morocco

Colonial cinema also covers a specific period in connection with the presence of colonial authorities and administration in Maghreb territory. For films made by French people after 1956 (roughly between 1955 and 1962), I prefer to speak of a postcolonial cinema that has a certain number of specificities that I will come back to later. As a result, the corpus of colonial film in Morocco covers a period from 1919 to 1956 and only counts fifty films; I speak of feature-length films because for the short film, mainly documentary, the figure easily exceeds one thousand.

But what makes colonial cinema more distinctive is a certain internal coherence that makes it a highly coded genre. It is a cinema that is an extension of the imagery inherited from the nineteenth century literary and pictorial tradition. A cinema carried by a look and an aesthetics of otherness where the other and its space are perceived through the perceptive codes of the West.

In his preface to Pierre Boulanger’s book, the film critic Guy Hennebelle summarizes a general impression of the films linked to a controversial historical period: “most of them have become partially unbearable because of their latent racism, their paternalism or their warlike mentality “. He thus joins the thesis defended by the book itself which after decrypting the clichés carrying these films, the escape, the dunes, sandstorms, the minaret, the veiled woman, the caïd with bloody eyes … arrives to this damning verdict: “all this bazaar literature accommodated to the taste of the day, gave birth to many productions that we look now only with a feeling of embarrassment”.

In fact, if this cinema was largely engaged in a function of propaganda clearly meant for some and that others rather sought to serve by their unbridled exoticism, to reinforce a certain conception of the civilizing mission of the colonial power confining the ‘other’ in a series of overused clichés and denying his existence by refusing even to allow him the figure of the ‘off-field’. Colonial cinema is also the imperialism of the field colonizing the off-field or denying it. “Everything in the field that could attract attention to the off-field is attenuated so that the off-field (space of the colonized) does not acquire too much importance and especially does not disturb the representation,” says Benjamin Stora.

Nevertheless, it is a cinema that should challenge us; to integrate it into this problematic but revealing legacy of colonialism. It’s an entire part of our visual memory that deserves to be rehabilitated. We argue for another approach to this “heritage”; we call for a “decolonizing” reading of this cinema. By inscribing it in its historicity, it is released temporarily from the weight of history. From a methodological point of view, I agree with Professor Hassan Rachik when he writes: “It would be reductive, if not wrong, to consider colonial anthropology as a mere reflection of colonial ideology and a nasty auxiliary to the politics of domination.” To adopt with regard to this cinema, the principle of the ethnographic situation which he develops in his book “Le Proche et Le Lointain”, namely the taking into account of the practical conditions in which the meeting takes place, the observation of the culture of the other. A posture that will allow us to note that beyond its apparent monolithism, this cinematography is crossed by trends, nuances … In short, not lacking complexity.

We can thus at least distinguish three major phases in its evolution; the first two being emblematic of the genre.

A phase where Morocco is presented as an indeterminate space referring to a Thousand and One Nights. The local space is reduced to a setting that nourishes an imaginary and a mythology outside time and space. A filmography that opens on vast horizons the day as Europe was done with the great war: the Maghreb offers this enchanting elsewhere. The flagship film of this period was L’Atlantide by Jacques Feyder (1921). “There is in Atlantis, wrote Louis Delluc, a great actor: the desert.” This is sufficiently explicit.

A phase of conquest in which the country invested is an empty or hostile space that calls for heroes and characters caught up in the adventure and the desire to escape … This is the period of the splendor of colonial cinema. The films devoted to colonization will represent in the 1930s, more than 10% of all French production. Films that highlight operations in the field but also many characters who find in territories to conquer spaces of redemption. Scenarios built around the recurrence of the same dramatic spring: to attach to the destiny of individuals in breach of the ban to which the army offers a second chance … The emblematic film being La Bandera by Julien Duvivier (1935) with the figure unforgettable Jean Gabin.

The Maghrebi is confined to fixed roles, either he is reduced to simple decoration like the palm tree, the camel, the Minaret, or he is the villain, the villain with the turbaned head, with the sly look carried by a religious fanaticism. The woman, she is usually invisible or veiled, otherwise, she is the dancer, the prostitute or the cards shooter.

Space is bipolar, decided between the European and the native. For the first, it is the modern and open city; for the second, after the desert of the first phase, it is the Kasbah, enigmatic place or citadel to take. Or the medina with its labyrinths and secrets.

Harka, a Spanish colonial film 

Morocco had known two colonial powers, France and Spain. We know that the so-called colonial cinema is predominantly French, with its mythical titles and its anthology figures: at the level of the character systems (the Legionnaire and the Bedouin) as well as at the level of configuration of the space (the kasbah, the medina) … One can then wonder about the hypothesis of the existence of a Spanish colonial cinema. On the sidelines of the Tetouan Festival, a few years ago, there was a retrospective of Spanish colonial cinema with the screening of some films confirming the existence of a specific genre within Spanish cinematography. We deduce that France does not have the exclusivity of this production. In both fiction and documentary films, the short or long format of the Spanish filmmakers chose to turn their camera on A reality that they were trying to present as Reality, the reality of the Spanish presence. In terms of staging the perspective, this cinema does not escape the canons that preside over all the imaginary colonial production, well beyond the chosen medium.

Al Harka is an eloquent model of this approach. It is a Spanish film by Arevalo O. Carlos (1941, 1h 08). The synopsis is laconic but revealing: “Military adventures in Morocco under Spanish protectorate while the rebels of vintage begin to stir …”

We see in the film a bundle of signs and patterns that reduce the space of the other to a space to be pacified. Some frames refer to a logic of the primitive western where the other was reduced to a permanent threat and which acts outside the Western code of honor. The rifain and his space are useful and appreciated as exotic objects, like this scene where soldiers prepare for skirmish and consume tea. The military presence is presented as a duty that transcends love: the young commander tears, at the end of the story, the photo of his friend to answer the call of duty, that of Mater the Harka.

Towards an Aboriginal cinema

A film stands out in the middle of this trend, Itto by Jean Benoït-Lévy and Marie Epstein (1934)

“It’s a kiss to Moroccan land,” wrote a film critic of the time. The film offers Moroccan images that the audience of the time ignored: a generous land. The approach to space and the Amazigh people is empathic. Certainly, the film continues to convey clichés and an imbalance in the treatment of space and people. This appears for example in the surrender sequence of the Amazigh rebel leader or in the treatment of the names of indigenous actors in the credits: their identity is reduced to the first name.

But the film Itto is precursor of a trend that will be confirmed in the 40s, with the inclinations of an indigenous cinema.

This is our third phase that we call the phase of positive otherness where we witness the emergence of a cinema open to the social realities of Morocco, inspired by its stories and pushing the wheel until the emergence of a local cinema. A pivotal date in this direction: 1946. Pierre Boulanger stresses that this is an important year that sees the French authorities encourage initiatives to endow the country with a truly national cinema “resolutely non-Western in its expression” and the creation of the Moroccan Film Center in January 1944 was a first step in this direction. A dozen production companies will also be created as well as the famous Studio Souissi. The objective is to thwart the influence of the Egyptian cinema whose melodramas worn by renowned singers (Kaltoum, Abdelouahab …) will stir up in the Moroccan public feelings of community belonging especially as it coincides with the emergence of a national independence political movement.

This trend was also favored by the arrival in the Maghreb of young filmmakers from the film clubs and the Cinémathèque; the most famous being Albert Lamorisse (in Tunisia) and André Zwobada

Between 1946 and 1949 a dozen feature films will be shot in this perspective including ‘The son of Destiny’ by Pierre Maillarakay (1946) and “La Danseuse de Marrakech”  by Léon Mathot (1949). But the public will not keep up; the codes of Egyptian melodrama transposed into another space and by another look did not work. However, this period will leave us cult films of colonial cinema.

Post-colonial cinema

It seems to me however that for more precision, it is useful to introduce a subdivision within this global corpus called “colonial cinema” by distinguishing two periods:

1919 -1955: Colonial cinema in the classical sense
1955 -1962: Post-colonial cinema

By “postcolonial” cinema I mean all the films made by French filmmakers who have continued to practice and work in Morocco, several years after independence. This cinema also has its major titles and its iconic filmmakers. These include Henri Jacques, Michel Clarence, Serge Debecque, Richard Chenay, Jean Severac (and his beautiful film: Les Enfants du Soleil, 1962) and Jean Fléchet.

Graduate of the IDHEC in 1952, Jean Fléchet arrives in Morocco where he works in diversified productions until the beginning of the 60s when he returns to France, to finally “specialize” in the movie-making of regions and hamlets. His Moroccan filmography is fundamentally different from the aesthetics of the colonial film; Jean Fléchet, in his fiction in particular, adopts a fundamentally culturalist approach, adapting stories and indigenous skits, leading to put them in images of Moroccan comedians. Among his productions that have met a great popular success, thanks in particular to the services of the cinematographic caravan, I quote Le Poulet / The Chicken (1954) with Bachir Laalej, Salim Berrada, Tayeb Seddiki … Pauvre Assou / Poor Assou (1954), Le Trésor Caché / The hidden treasure (1954) ) … a work that extends even after the official end of the protectorate. He thus signs one of the major films of this period, Brahim ou le collier de beignets / Brahim or the donut necklace (1957) where we find the ingredients that marked his previous fictions, based on the work at the level of the scenario and dialogues, the contribution of Moroccan writers but also by inscribing it in the ideology of the time, that of a nation that aspires to reconstitute its identity and to seek its takeoff.

Brahim ou le collier de beignets is a 45-minute production of the CCM. It had an exceptional destiny since it was the first film to represent Morocco in a major international film event. The Ministry of Information having received from the Berlin Festival an invitation to the participation of the Kingdom in the prestigious festival. It turns out that Fléchet was not only available but had a scenario on hand; he adapted it to the new circumstances, for it was necessary to act quickly. The film was then made and had a more than respectable participation in Berlin … With a good public and critical reception … except for a mixed reaction from the French ambassador who boycotted the official reception organized at the following the screening of the film … a way of saying that he did not like the fact that the film does not speak anywhere of the “civilizing mission” of France in Morocco. An additional argument that argues in favor of the rehabilitation of this beautiful film and to integrate it in the Moroccan filmography, like a whole cinematographic patrimony of this time.

A way to rehabilitate a mutilated memory.








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