Instances of the Seventh Art

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The last couple of weeks have been an elongated British Film Week, with full programmes in Marrakech and Rabat and a couple of very interesting events in Casablanca. As Director of the British Council , I have the problem of wanting – but not being able – to see all the films. I do, though get to see a few. This year I managed the opening in Marrakech and both the rather special events in Casablanca.

Marrakech opened with Glenn Leybourn and Lisa Barros D’Sa’s Good Vibrations. I’ll admit that I set off for the cinema with a certain resignation. My job takes me to some odd events, and a film about punk rock in 1970s Belfast, watched in Marrakech, promised to be one of the odder, and possibly less enjoyable, of them. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a magnificent film, quite gripping and carrying an important message about the power of obstinate refusal to take sides in a polarized society.

The central character is a splendidly stubborn alcoholic Ulsterman, Terri Hooley (played by Richard Dormer), who ploughs and muddles his way through the Troubles, through beatings and bombings, disasters and triumphs, with a superb insouciance. He borrows money with spectacular optimism and opens a record shop, called Good Vibrations, on a main street in central Belfast that is a frequent target of the IRA (‘the most bombed half-mile in Europe’), and progresses through alcohol-fuelled concerts, arguments and inspirations to become the kingpin of Belfast punk. Never taking No for an answer (and seldom taking Yes very easily), he promotes Belfast bands, organizes shoestring concerts, tours the province in a beat-up camper van and records discs for bands that he has discovered – discs and bands which are eventually fairly, but generally not very, successful. Ultimately he organizes a triumphant, epoch-marking concert at the enormous Unionist Hall which is a tremendous success but loses money in shed-loads because of the number of free tickets he has given out. He is rueful but delighted.

Two moments stand out particularly in my memory, from the film. The first is when the camper van full of drunken Ulstermen with outlandish costumes and multicoloured hair is stopped at night in the countryside at a British roadblock, and a black squaddie interrogates them suspiciously as they stand uncomfortably spread-eagled against the side of the van. Where are they from? They name a bewildering variety of places, which immediately makes him suspicious. Are they Catholic or Protestant? They don’t seem either concerned or interested by the question or the answer. Both. Bemused by this bizarre bunch, who defy all easy categorisation, he eventually lets them go on their way, with a quizzical grin.

The second is after the credits at the very end of the film. We see on the screen the date that the Good Vibrations record shop opened. And closed. And opened again. And closed again. And opened … and so on, a tale of bloody-minded, obstinate resilience that is very touching. The audience laughed and cheered at every reopening date (and there were at least half a dozen). This is a story of the triumph of a cussed, maddening, thoroughly imperfect but oddly attractive individual over the malice and violence that deform society, simply through refusing to take it too seriously.

*

A few days later I found myself in Sidi Moumen, for a showing there of Nessim Abassi’s film Majid. Sidi Moumen of course is the bidonville outside Casablanca from which came most of the 2003 suicide bombers whose story is told in fictionalised form by Mahi Binebine in Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen, and by Nabil Ayouch in his film of Binebine’s novel, Les Chevaux de Dieu. It has changed a lot since 2003. The appalling slum that Binebine described has seen much government money pumped into housing, and much attention leading, among other things, to a new cultural centre founded seven years ago by Boubeker Mazouz, and another under way at the hands of Nabil Ayouch. It’s still a pretty rough urban neighbourhood, but it could no longer act as itself when Ayouch came to make the film, and he had to do much of the filming elsewhere, in an unimproved shanty-town. The shacks have largely given way to concrete apartments blocks, and Sidi Moumen has been absorbed into the city.

The film was screened at Boubeker Mazouz’s cultural centre, a bright, warm place which has become a focus of community life after an initial period of deep suspicion. The audience was welcomed with tea and cakes, and entertained by a very good steel band which played with great gusto in the garden. As for the film, it went down very well. We chose it because it is made in darija, and so is accessible to an audience that speaks little French and virtually no English (and can’t easily manage, because largely illiterate, even Arabic subtitles).

Nessim is a film-maker with one foot in England (he studied at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and lives part of the year in London) and the other in Mohammedia where the film begins. It is a picaresque tale, of a pair of small street-boys who eke out a living selling cigarettes and cleaning shoes. One of them – Majid – is determined to find a photograph of his dead parents, and sets off with his companion, Larbi, to Casablanca to find some distant old friends who may, just possibly, have a photo. The film is the story of the boys’ adventures on the way, and their eventual success, followed by an unexpectedly happy outcome.  Their adventures form a series of clever, linked, cameos, with a raffish elder brother, a malignant policeman, an aggressive gang, a dishonest taxi-driver, a generous blind man at the mosque, a demonic drug-addict and so on. It is a simple and very effective story, seen from a child’s point of view, with a structure that is hidden from its two small heroes. The audience loved it: a film that is quite so accessible, in a language that they all understand, cameos that they all recognize and with an ending – emigration to Europe – that most want for themselves, it has instant appeal. And it has instant appeal to me, and this on the second time of watching.

Nessim has given the film a number of showings in London aimed at raising funds for the boys’  – Brahim Al Bakali’s and Lotfi Sabir’s  – education. Like the characters they play in Majid, they are poor, and from Mohammedia, and he has set about giving them a step up in life. It’s a good story-in-a-film, and a good story-in-life.

As for the third film, Deborah Perkins’s Bastards, that deserves a post all to itself.


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