On Wednesday, June 30, 2021, Mr. Ahmed Boughaba led the fourth session of the MENA Prison Forum Talks Series. He discussed the origins of Moroccan cinema, as well as the censorship to which particular films have been subjected. He then turned to the link between cinema and political detention in Morocco, and described how movies at times functioned to restore the voices of political prisoners. Mr. Boughaba thus integrated his professional career as a film critic and his personal experience as an ex-prisoner who spent ten years in detention during the Moroccan “Years of Lead” that extended from the 1960s up until the 1980s. In the process, he highlighted the ways in which political detention is invariably accompanied by the imprisonment of culture and memory.
Before Mr. Boughaba started his talk, MPF filmmaker and researcher Ayman Nahle opened the session by noting the findings of French historian Marc Ferro, who stated that movies are historical documents that can be seen to vitally reflect various aspects of society. In this way, while historical books can be forgotten, movies are unlikely to be due to their interactive and visual nature. In this vein, certain historical periods have seen Middle Eastern states try to stop political and social processes that were underway, but filmography managed to capture elements of these periods; perhaps not extensively, but enough to encourage audiences to raise questions and imagine certain periods of history.
Mr. Boughaba’s talk addressed dynamics captured in Moroccan films produced under the regime of King Mohammed VI (1999 - present) that focused on the “Years of Lead” under previous King Hassan II. King Hassan II’s rule was marked by state control and repression, and while King Mohammed VI aimed to show his era as being more liberal, censorship under this regime still did not allow cinematographers to fully depict the atrocities of the ruling authorities of the “Years of Lead.” Filmmakers still managed to make use of the pseudo-democratization process that began at the beginning of the 21st century: movies such as The Black Chamber/Darb Moulay Cherif (2004) by Hassan Benjelloun, Detained Memory (2004) by Jilali Farhati, and Jawhara the Girl of Detention (2004) by Saad Chraibiare examples of visual attempts whose directors and actors did their best to save fragments of the personal memories of those whose bodies and souls were crushed in Moroccan prisons.
Mr. Boughaba emphasized that the movies produced by the end of the 1990s and at the turn of the 21st century came to serve the new regime and its image as a provider of liberties, not only internally among Moroccans, but also within the international community. While he noted that the production of most of the movies was supported by the state-affiliated Film Cultural Center in Morocco, these movies are still good opportunities to narrate and expose historical facts to new generations who did not know about what happened during the “Years of Lead.” For instance, the first film that touched on the issue of freedom in light of the gradual ‘opening-up’ of Morocco was Un simple fait divers/A Simple Miscellaneous Fact (1998) by Hakim Noury, which addressed press freedom in Morocco. Later films that similarly took advantage of the relative liberties featured or were co-written by ex-prisoners, such as Mona Saber (2001) by Abdelhai Laraki, and Face to Face (2002) by AbdelKader Lagtaa together with the aforementioned The Black Chamber/Derb Moulay Cherif. Hence, even within censorship and cultural regulations, these movies were important platforms where agencies and voices of ex-prisoners could be reflected.
Mr. Boughaba addressed several seminal films throughout his talk. He presented Our Forbidden Places (2008) by Leïla Kilani as a significant example of how filmmakers sought to circumvent the limited freedoms offered by the new regime in Morocco. Mr. Boughaba argued that while Kilani began her film within guidelines from an official agency in Morocco, she surpassed the orders and found herself depicting former detention centers in Morocco such as Derb Moulay Cherif and Tazmamart. He added that a beautiful element of the film is that while Kilani had permission to enter these locations, she chose not to, out of solidarity with the majority of Moroccans who were not allowed to access them. Instead, she elected to accompany ex-prisoners and their families while shooting around, and not inside, their former prisons, to reflect that Moroccans are still unable to have full access to the country’s autocratic past.
They are the Dogs (2014) by Hisham Lasri is another film that reflects the afterlives of detention and the repression of prison memory in Morocco. This film tells the story of a person who suffered from amnesia following his release from prison: he forgot his family, and his family thought that he escaped and left them as he completely disappeared for years. At the end of the film, after he has been searching for his family and his own identity, the film discovers that he was not a political detainee, but instead he was randomly captured during the 1981 uprisings in Morocco while simply out buying bread. The lost memory of this ex-prisoner can symbolize broader state policies that attempt to push people to forget why they were detained and what happened to them inside prison.
Lastly, Mr. Boughaba further explored the title of the previously mentioned Detained Memory by Jilali Farhati, as it specifies neither the kind of memory that is detained, nor the nature of detention. Farhati, who is the main protagonist in the film, shows us that a “detained memory” might not only result from state repression but also from the will of the individual prisoners. Some prisoners might refuse to remember and to keep their memory captured deep in their minds. As anthropologist Audra Simpson found, the refusal to speak can be another form of resistance. And it seems that Farhati wants to remind us that some prisoners, who are also filmmakers, writers, or who belong to different fields and professions, might not want to be part of the “opening-up” that happened in Morocco at the end of the 20th century. Instead, they want their memories to stay haunting the assumed political “liberalization” and its attempts to control the memory of the “Years of Lead.”
In conclusion, Walter Benjamin in Illuminations warns us about “the storm…blowing from Paradise…[that] we call progress.” “New” regimes who led their countries at the end of the 20th century aimed to control the narratives of their rule, as well as the ruling periods that came before them under the guise of progress and for the sake of future generations. In this regard, Morocco is not an exception to “the storm” of progress. Similar cases can be found in other countries in the Middle East such as Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, who presented themselves as “opening-up” their policies while still controlling narratives around political violence and state oppression, specifically in the form of prison elements. It is within this context that Mr. Boughaba examined the Moroccan cinematic scene and its connection to histories and memories of incarceration in Morocco. Mr. Ahmed Boughaba is a professional journalist, film critic, and translator. He holds a diploma in criticism from the Filmology Institute in Lille, France, under the supervision of Professor Louisette Farreniaux. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he served as the film editor of multiple Moroccan newspapers. He has collaborated with many foreign cinema publications and websites, and has partnered with film festivals in Lille, Marseille, and Paris in response to their expressed interest in Arab cinema. As a content contributor for Morocco’s first and second television channels, Mr. Boughaba produced cinematic programs, serving as the editor-in-chief of some. Mr. Boughaba was a member of the Script Reading Committee at both the Moroccan Film Center and the First Moroccan Channel (Al-Aoula). He also served on film festival committees in Morocco, as well as abroad in France, Belgium, and Italy. He was likewise a member of several arbitration committees, participating in such a capacity for festivals held in Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Cameroon, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Additionally, he was a member of arbitration committees for professional press in Algeria, Tunisia, and France. Mr. Boughaba was the moderator of the International Documentary Film Forum in Fez (in cooperation with the French Institute), and also oversaw film programming at the Kenitra Forum for Cinema and Human Rights. Mr. Boughaba has translated cinematic texts from French to Arabic. He has also worked as a consultant on multiple foreign documentaries that examine immigration in Tangiers and explore the stories of foreign writers who settled there during the Years of Lead. Mr. Boughaba currently serves on the board of directors of both Films and Young Film Talents—two French associations that are both based in Marseille. He is also a contributing member of The Magic Lamp, a Swiss association which creates children’s television and cinematic programming. Mr. Boughaba is a former political prisoner who spent more than ten consecutive years between Commissariat prison in Tangiers and Derb Moulay Cherif prison in Casablanca. He also spent time in the prisons of Ain Al Berga in Casablanca, the Central Prison in Kenitra, and the Municipal Prison in Chaouen.