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One of Morocco’s most important documentary filmmakers and video artists, Ali Essafi’s chronicles of his homeland show precision yet also empathy. His films have won many awards and been screened in prestigious locations such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Archival materials often form the basis of Ali Essafi’s work; in a country where almost no archives are accessible to the public, the importance of this achievement on an artistic, art historical, and political level should not be underestimated.
Ali Essafi was born in Fez in 1963. He studied psychology in France. His films are featured regularly at documentary film festivals from Montréal to Milan. His directorial debut “Général, nous voilà!” (1997) won the special prize of the jury at the Namur Film Festival, while “Ouarzazate” (2001) was awarded the prize for best documentary film from the Mediterranean region at the film festival in Syrakus. In 2002, Ali Essafi returned to Morocco, where he worked for three years to advise on issues related to public television. Today, he divides his time between Morocco and Brazil.
In light of Ali Essafi’s archival approach, he is closely linked to Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011), a central figure of Moroccan cinema. His current film project “Nos sombres années 70,” which is based on the cinematic essay “Fuite!” (2011), is another example of this approach. Ahmed Bouanani was the first Moroccan director to use archival material in his films, yet he paid a high price for this, enduring film censorship and a life of poverty; only now are his films beginning to receive due recognition.
Like Ahmed Bouanani, Ali Essafi is convinced of the connection between memory and creation, as he explained in an interview with MoHO (Modern Heritage Observatory). As part of his role as a teacher, he strives to prevent the older generation’s memories from falling into obscurity. Due to the non-existent state archives in Morocco, “memory and, at the same time, creativity, disappear from one generation to the next.” As a consequence of censorship, in the 1970s “private photographs were unusual! (…) Even worse: Students and youth destroyed the images in order to avoid giving the police any incriminating evidence.” Ali Essafi captured this repressive atmosphere in his cinematic essay “Fuite!” (2011), which features the student Aziz, who lived under an assumed name for two years before being sent to prison. The director is currently at work on a longer version of this film called “Nos sombres années 70,” and his next project is dedicated to his cinematic mentor Ahmed Bouanani. During the final three years of Bouanani’s life, he offered Essafi insights into his life and achievements.
In his work, Ali Essafi uses a variety of subjects to capture the essence of Morocco’s past and present: In “Ouarzazate” (2001), for example, Ali Essafi trains his camera on the eponymous Moroccan village where many major Hollywood productions like “Gladiator” or “Asterix and Obelix” were filmed. The film follows Moroccan extras from casting to wardrobe, who will never see the final film, thus using comedy to reveal the gap between the magic on screen and the reality during production.
In “Le Blues des Shikhates” (first prize at the Festival de Cinéma Sud, 2004), Ali Essafi focuses on three traditional Berber singers. Though loved for their music, the singers are nonetheless considered outsiders in Moroccan society.
In a different vein, the documentary “Général, nous voilà!” (Jury prize in Namur, Fonds d’Aide CNC, 1997) examines Moroccan veterans of the French Army. In 1960 the country gained independence – yet the veterans lost their pensions. In 1996, a group of these retired soldiers headed to courts in Bordeaux to fight for their claims. Essafi also produced the films “Le Silence des champs de betteraves” (Grand Prize at the Festival du Film de l’Environnement, 1998) and “Paris mois par mois” (1999) in France, though they feature Moroccan subjects.

Text: Maike Wetzel

Translation into English: Amy Pradell

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Films: 2015 Nos sombres années 70 (Documentary, in production 75’) 2015 Le Cosmonaute (Documentary, in post-production, 80‘) 2011 Fuite! (Short film, 29’) 2004 Le Blues des Shikhates (Documentary, 57‘) 2002 Al Jazira, les Arabes de 1424! (Documentary, 6‘) 2001 Ouarzazate (Documentary, 55‘) 1999 Paris mois par mois (Documentary, 26‘) 1998 Le Silence des champs de betteraves (Documentary, 54‘) 1997 Général, nous voilà! (Documentary, 60‘)
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