Kevin Dwyer,
Beyond Casablanca:
M.A. Tazi & the
Adventure of Moroccan Cinema

(Indiana University Press, 2004)

Few Americans have seen Muhammad Abderrahman Tazi's films, and Kevin Dwyer is an anthropologist. But you needn't be a specialist to find this book fascinating. As Tazi's career is described, readers will also learn a great deal about filmmaking, Morocco's colonial hangover and the effects of globalization on Third World culture.

Dwyer is well qualified to write about Morocco and its arts. He has spent much of his professional life there and in other North African countries and is now a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo. As demonstrated in this and previous books, he is also well qualified to conduct the interviews on which much of Beyond Casablanca is based. Thoughtful questions and comments put his subjects at ease. There is organization and direction, but we feel we are privy to the conversations of friends -- without the grinding of personal or academic axes.

Foreign film producers often take advantage of Morocco's exotic settings and lower production costs, and so Tazi has worked with Scorsese, Coppola, Huston and others. His credits include The Last Temptation of Christ, The Black Stallion Returns and The Man Who Would Be King. On the latter, a John Huston film, Tazi assisted with casting, recommended shooting locations and managed portions of the production effort. As he describes his early practical experience, we begin to appreciate the logistics of creating a film. Whether in Morocco or Hollywood, the basic requirements are the same. Casting, scene location, lighting, shooting sequences, props, continuity, sound mix, camera angles and perspective are some of the elements discussed here.

It's intriguing to hear a director talk about technique. Tazi tells us he tends to shoot from a distance rather than close in. He believes close-ups ruin "objectivity" and intrude on more appropriately private space. It's even more intriguing to learn that early in his career, lacking guide tracks and Steadicams, the director shot from the trunk of a moving car or from a wheelbarrow pushed by an assistant. I won't take the cameraman for granted the next time I watch Indiana Jones tearing away from a mortal threat.

Dwyer knows that the technical problems of a Third World filmmaker are a good stand-in for the more general challenges faced by ex-colonies. That wheelbarrow is a not so subtle reminder of what they face as they adjust to independence. Dwyer traces Tazi's evolution from wheelbarrow to digital editing, a difficult trip that remains incomplete. The parallel journey from colony to viable independent state is unimaginably more challenging and happy endings are far from given. Physical infrastructure, the economy, and governmental and educational systems must be rethought and made more effective. Pessimism and frustration have many thousands of Moroccans taking to small boats to cross the Mediterranean on dangerous voyages to Spain as illegal immigrants, a problem Tazi highlights in two of his more serious films.

The filmmaker's career also demonstrates that globalization can add to the woes of a country such as Morocco. It makes digital technology more readily available so it's easier and less expensive for Tazi to create the movie he wants, but at the same time he must now compete with U.S. media giants. Because of the limited number of screens in Morocco and the lack of foreign interest, Moroccan films invariably lose money. That means funding is scarce and only 10 or so films are made each year in spite of strong domestic interest. American films, profitable because of enormously wider distribution, fill much of the vacuum. Over 95 percent of the movies shown in Morocco are by foreign producers. Analogous problems plague many Third World industries. Proponents, including me, believe globalization will be for the best longer term, but there is increasing recognition that governments must intervene to temper market forces as long as there are huge imbalances in relative strength.

Fighting through the paucity of funding, weak technical support and strong foreign competition, Tazi has produced and directed five feature films. Beyond Casablanca describes the plot and circumstances of production of each in some detail. One of the clearest messages is that he makes movies that tell stories about, as he says, "what haunts me." That's one of the reasons he is a frequent winner at various international festivals.

I think some American films are terrific and many more are entertaining, but few American directors make films because they have stories to tell about what haunts them. Even the most successful, and therefore independent, check marketing studies before they get very far into a new project. It's a business with big stakes. Film company managements have input and writers tend to come in teams designed to ensure something for everyone. M.A. Tazi, on the other hand, knows even his most popular films won't break even. He makes them because he has to. That's a pretty good definition of being an artist, and Beyond Casablanca is well worth reading for its insight into an artist's mind and for the light it sheds on some of today's most difficult and controversial international social and economic issues.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 20 August 2005

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