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There is something mythical, almost legendary, which seizes the visitor of the Tangier film library. Is it its Art Deco architecture, with its colorful facade, terrazzo floor and retro furniture, that takes us into the cosmopolitan Tangier of the 1950s? Or maybe his reel collections and old black and white movie posters hanging on the walls?
One would still believe in the Rif, a mythical cinema erected in 1937 at this location, where moviegoers from all over the world intersected, at a time when the city’s art scene was bubbling.
Only smartphone ringtones bring you back to reality. In modern Tangier, invaded by commercial film pirates, the cinema is in trouble and the period theaters are crumbling. Morocco has around thirty of them at most, most of them commercial theaters. But the Tangier film library is showing resistance.
“In 2005, the Rif cinema was showing Bollywood films, says Mohamed Lansari, director of the film library. It was almost destroyed. “ Doomed to become a supermarket, like other establishments already transformed into shopping centers, the cinema is saved by a bunch of idealists.
“A symbolic and political stake”
At their head, a recognized Moroccan artist, Yto Barrada. For this Tangéroise, the cinema is an old passion. Already in 2002, she dreamed of converting the local station into a dark room, before the site finally became a police station.
« We all felt a wounded pride when we remembered that it was in Tangier that the first film festival in Morocco was held. Remembers the photographer, who now lives in New York. When she discovers that the Rif is for sale, she moves heaven and earth, to finally buy it back in 2004 with the French producer Cyriac Auriol.
No question of opening another room. Yto Barrada dreams of a « cinémathèque », even though there has been one since 1994 in Rabat. “There was a symbolic, political issue, she hammers to the skeptics. It was necessary to safeguard the heritage, preserve the archives and show a cinema free from the hegemony of commercial films. ”
However, it is not easy to improvise as a venue operator, which is moreover art and testing. In The Tangier Cinematheque Album, published by the Bookstore of Columns and the Virreina art center, the artist Bouchra Khalili, who will take care of the programming of the place, reminds them that “ we had to learn to speak the language of the distributors, understand what a rights holder is ».
A renovation of more than one million euros
And overcome the relentless Moroccan bureaucracy. ” We weren’t taken seriously, remembers Yto Barrada. The distributors talked to us about entertainment, we talked about culture. »
Through the Europa Cinémas network of theaters, she meets the architect Jean-Marc Lalo, who had just completed a cinema in Kabul, Afghanistan. Between these two activists, the current passes immediately. “I wanted a discreet redevelopment project”, explains the architect, who takes care to keep the facade in its original state, “To give the feeling of continuity”.
On the other hand, he restructured the long, ill-proportioned room, initially built for 600 people. By reducing it to 350 seats, the architect doubles it as a second room with 50 seats, allowing documentaries and short films to be played and to organize workshops dedicated to video art as well as debates.
At the beginning, the budget is tight: you have to show tricks. In Milan, the band bought the seats of a cinema that had just closed. At the Tangier flea market, they find the old lights that once adorned the room. The renovation of the place ultimately costs more than a million euros, financed by the Moroccan state, the Europa Cinémas network, and the support of private structures such as the Ford Foundation and the Dutch Prince Claus fund.
“One of the rare places of mixed use in the city”
Since its inauguration in February 2007, the film library has become the cultural heart of the Place du Grand Socco, at the gateway to the medina and the modern city, “A place that belongs to everyone and to no one at the same time”, we repeat like a mantra to whoever wants to hear it. The restaurant-café, whose terrace is always full, welcomes all audiences, all ages, all nationalities.
« It is both an agora and a port, a space for doing homework as well as for setting up a project. », Summarizes Yto Barrada. From Tuesday to Sunday, in a hubbub mixing Arabic, French and Spanish, we meet veiled women and students in “crop tops”, a few tourists or European expatriates who have come to seek inspiration in the midst of Moroccan regulars.
“It is one of the rare places of mixed use in the city, recognizes Hamid Talhi, a 55-year-old mechanic from Tangier. Even without a cinema, just for a coffee, it feels like the Tangier of the past, cosmopolitan and artistic. It is one of the last places where you can feel that! “
Normally, we discover all kinds of auteur films, historical and contemporary, from all over the world. The programming, quite sophisticated, mixes heritage cinema and alternative films every week, as we rarely see in Morocco.
Stopped for more than a year and a half due to the Covid-19 pandemic, projections should resume during the month of July. In the program, Nomadland, silent and melancholy road movie by director Chloé Zhao who surprised at the Oscars after her Golden Lion in Venice. The public will also be able to discover a series of films devoted to Palestinian women, French cinema and American classics.
To those who call it elitist, Mohamed Lansari reminds that this cultural institution exists above all to revive the seventh art and make it easier to access to the Moroccan public. In the country, 80% of the population have never entered a cinema, according to a study published in 2018 by the Racines association for cultural development in Morocco and Africa. To encourage them to come, the film library offers tickets at 25 dirhams (around 2.35 euros) and free admission to students, against an average of 60 dirhams (around 5.65 euros) in a commercial theater.
“Our detractors accuse us of showing cutting edge films because they do not trust the intellectual capacities of Moroccans. We are giving them the tools to understand and the result is very encouraging! “, defends the 32-year-old director, originally from Casablanca.
A “solidarity salary” system
The film library also carries out educational actions in disadvantaged neighborhoods. “These kids had never set foot in the cinema. Usually they download movies. “ Once in front of the screen, the magic operates. “Something really extraordinary is happening, continues Mohamed Lansari with passion. Each session is accompanied by a debate. This is where the connections are made. “
The film library has just emerged from a chaotic period linked to the pandemic. Thanks to a system of “Solidarity salary”, none of the ten employees were made redundant. Only the old projectionist, who was there at the time of the Rif cinema, has retired. “We are still equipped to make projections on 16 and 35 mm film”, explains his young replacement, Yassir, 26, who is still learning the trade in old books on film techniques.
Thanks to the recipes of the restaurant-café, reopened in August 2020, the young team of the film library continued to maintain the place, as well as its library and its archive room where they began conservation work. “But we are suffocating financially. Every month, we wonder if we will be able to pay people ”, sighs Mohamed Lansari.
Despite the international influence of the place, you have to fight to exist in a country where culture is relegated to the background. “We didn’t earn any money, we paid for being independent, Admet Yto Barrada. But we remained free. And fifteen years later, we’re still here! »
The World Africa and his correspondents went to meet African cinemas. Those of a lost golden age as in Ivory Coast or Algeria where, a few decades ago, people flocked to dark rooms to discover the latest action films or rediscover the classics of national creation.
“Cinemas did not survive the switch from analog to digital” of the early 2000s, regrets the Ivorian film critic Yacouba Sangaré. There as elsewhere, the seventh art had to take side roads to continue to reach its audience. Video stores – from VHS tapes to DVDs – have nurtured a generation of moviegoers.
Some today are trying to revive mythical venues and their demanding programming, as in Morocco or Burkina Faso. Others see in the series a new mode of fertile creation. From fans of the Tangier film library to the conservative cinema of Kannywood, in northern Nigeria, they make African cinema today.