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Hassouna Mansouri
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Hassouna Mansouri

North African Cinema: Leadership and Specificities
Let's say it in a nutshell, North African cinema is not as identical as it seems in all countries. Situations are very different, politically and historically. There is at least one big difference which splits the region in two poles: on the one hand Egypt with its big organized film industry, on the other hand the so called ‘film d'auteur' politics in the Maghreb.

First was History

Egypt started its film production in the early 20's, thanks to Talaat Harb, the manager who had a prospective vision about the big role that cinema was going to play in the Egyptian society and economy. At that time, Maghrebian people (in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) were still fighting for their independence. Film production here would not start until the sixties.
We will make an exception for Mauritania and Libya. In these two countries one can hardly speak about cinema or an infrastructure for cinema. For decades there was a Libyan institution called Al-Khayala but it disappeared in the 90's. And there is a Mauritanian film office in the Ministry of Culture but there's no real film production, and there are no film theaters.

Until the 60's the only films that locals or so called cultured North African people could see, were films from Egypt: melodramas, musicals and action film. All what could be a local copy of Hollywood somehow adapted to the reality of the spectator.
Big changes came in the 80's. While Egypt went on in the direction of industrialization and commercialization, the Tunisian SATPEC and the Algerian CAAIC [1] more or less exploded. Paradoxically, the public started to get interested in films made in the two countries. L'Homme des Cendres de Nouri Bouzid hit the box office in Tunisia in the mid 80's. In Algeria Marzak Allouach and Mohamed Chouikh took over from Lakhdar Hamina, with Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975) the ever only Arabian/African winner of the Palme d'Or in Cannes.
At the same time, Morocco started to show its ambition of leadership in the region. The Moroccan Center of Cinematography [2] (CCM) exists since 1944, but until the 90's it didn't play an important role. However, important films were produced, films made by people like Jillali Ferhati, Souhail ben Barka and Farida Belyazid. Currently, the CCM is having a leading role in the region. A lot of Tunisian, Algerian, and even Egyptian independent films are developed in its laboratory. A lot of sub-Saharan films as well.

Time of Big Changes

This historical background is necessary to understand what is going on now. One can notice the obvious emergence of new generations of film makers using new tools of production. And there's one main factor for that: the establishment of film schools. Nevertheless, there are still some handicaps: the deficiency of political strategy to promote cinema, the chaotic political situation, and the big control in commercial production.
The fact is that North Africa produces films more than ever. The digital technology makes the production (of short films mainly) more and more easy. In 2009, 51 short films where produced in Tunisia. Only few of them got state subsidy. The biggest part of them is independent production. Unfortunately the production of long features remains modest. The renovation of the laboratory [3] by the big Tunisian producer Tarak Ben Ammar didn't help much, because it is still more open to foreign productions than to nationals.

Moroccan short film production is also flourishing. Thanks to CCM's promotion strategy, Moroccan shorts are selected for a lot of festivals. One could not say the same about Algeria. For two decades, and until 2003, there were no subsidies for cinema. The Algerian infrastructure was simply blown up because of the political crises of the 80's. All Algerian films between 1988 and 2003 where made by the Diaspora. The last couple of years we heard talks of an Algerian Film Fund at the occasion of the Year of Algeria, organized in/by France in 2003. This was confirmed at the occasion of the third Panafrican Cultural Festival, July 2009.
In Egypt, the tradition of the over-organized industry is going on. Young film makers can hardly enter the world of big production companies. Mostly, new talents are pushed to the little corner of underground productions. Nevertheless, and despite the machines of majors like Good News, the producer of the last Egyptian box office Yacoubian Building (2006), there is still space for small and independent productions like Ain Chams (2008) by Ibrahim Al-Batout or Basra (2009) by Ahmad Rashwan.

What is Seen, What Not

All these factors have an impact on what people see in film theatres. For a long time there was only distribution of Hollywood films and/or their copies from Egypt or India. National productions could progressively find a place on screens in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Sometimes, they could even have the best commercial result.
This was the case of Essaida (1996) by Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Zran with around 300.000 spectators. His second feature The Prince (2004) had only 40.000. This is a record according to the number of active theaters in Tunisia which are not more than ten, while there were more than 150 theaters in the early 60's. That's why also, when Making Of (2007) by Nouri Bouzid had only 30.000 spectators, the film maker considered that a good result.

In Algeria, the situation of the film market is worse. It has reached the bottom since the events in the 80's. The government seems to have a plan to rebuild the park of film theaters, but it takes time. Meanwhile, some private initiatives are trying to find their ways. Hechmi Zertal, former head of the Algerian Cinematheque for instance, started to renovate two film theaters where some Algerian films like China is Still Far (2008) by Malek ben Smaïl can be screened. Specialists expect a big return for Algeria once the political situation is stabilized.

In Morocco national films are having a big part of the market. Only in Casablanca there are 27 screens and one multiplex of 14 cinemas, the Megarama. In the box office of 2008, Morocco with 40 [4] distributed films was number two after the USA and before Egypt and India. However, on the first thirty films, top of the box office is Marjan Ahmad Marjan, an Egyptian film which has no bigger secret than the fact that the main role is Adel Imam, the famous actor of popular comedies. It is followed by two Moroccan films: Whatever Lola Wants by Nabil Ayouch and Number One by Zakia Tahiri.

In Egypt, there is quite no place for independent films unless in the very few small art house theaters. Distribution is under the monopole of Hollywood, Bollywood and Egyptian commercial productions. A small budget film like Basra by Ahmad Rashwan, for instance, will not find a distributor in this jungle. The same goes for Maghrebian films. None was ever released in Egypt while Egyptian films are naturally welcomed in the Maghreb.

This is to say that there is a kind of alternation of leadership in North African cinema with Egypt staying aside. The Moroccan industry is growing, Algeria and Tunisia are coming back with new strategies, Libya will one day wake up… What can we then expect?

By Hassouna Mansouri

[1] SATPEC (Tunisia) and CAAIC (Algeria) were the two governmental institutions in charge of production and distribution in the two countries until the last years of the 20th century.
[2] In French: Centre Cinématographique Marocain,
[3] In its politic of disengagement the state sold the SATPEC to the producer with the condition to keep on helping national productions.
[4] For all statistics see

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   liens films

Basra 2008
Ahmed Rashwan

Chine est encore loin (La) 2008
Malek Bensmaïl

Chronique des années de braise (Waqai' Sanawat al-Jamr) 1975
Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina

Ein Shams (The Eye of the Sun) 2008
Ibrahim El Batout

Essaïda 1995
Mohamed Zran

Homme de cendres (L') 1986
Nouri Bouzid

Immeuble Yacoubian (L') 2005
Marwan Hamed

Making of, le dernier film 2006
Nouri Bouzid

Morgane Ahmed Morgane - مرجان أحمد مرجان 2007
Ali Idrees

Number One 2007
Zakia Tahiri

Prince (Le) 2004
Mohamed Zran

Whatever Lola Wants 2007
Nabil Ayouch

   liens artistes

Allouache Merzak

Ayouch Nabil

Ben Ammar Tarak

Ben Barka Souheil

Benlyazid Farida

Bensmaïl Malek

Bouzid Nouri

Chouikh Mohamed

El Batout Ibrahim

Ferhati Jillali

Hamed Marwan

Idrees Ali

Imam Adel

Lakhdar-Hamina Mohamed

Maâti Youssef

Rashwan Ahmed

Tahiri Zakia

Zran Mohamed

   liens structures

Al Arabia Cinema Production & Distribution (ACPD)
Égypte | LE CAIRE

ATPCC (Association Tunisienne de la Promotion de la Critique Cinématographique)
Tunisie | TUNIS

CAAIC (Centre algérien pour l'Art et l'Industrie Cinématographique)
Algérie | ALGER

Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CCM)
Maroc | RABAT

Tunisie | TUNIS

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