A new wave of North African filmmakers is defying moral conservatism to turn a candid lens on the harsh and disturbing realities of women's lives.
"I don't see myself as an activist," states Moroccan-French director Nabil Ayouch, whose film Much Loved was banned in Morocco in May 2015 for – according to the authorities – distorting the country's image. "I do not make a movie to create a debate but I am happy if it does."
Much Loved explores the lives of prostitutes in modern-day Marrakech, with sex scenes perceived as shocking in a Muslim country. In one, after a night of sex, dancing and alcohol, Noha, the main character played by actor Loubna Abidar, complains that her Saudi client was so harsh on her that he "turned her uterus over", and pours Coca-Cola on her vagina to ease her pain.
With our generation, there have been more women working in the cinema, behind the camera, writing the scripts, or even at technical jobs
Another scene shows Noha being raped by a policeman in a police station. The movie rushes that were available on the internet caused such a stir that the film never reached the big screen in Morocco. The reactions were so intense that Abidar was attacked in the streets of Casablanca, forcing her to exile herself to Paris where she now lives.
Much Loved embodies Morocco's cinematic new wave, which trains an unfiltered lens on the country's everyday life, from the gilded bubble of its wealthy elite in Laila Marrakchi's Marock, released in 2005, to its street violence, as shown in Nour Eddine Lakhmari's 2008 film Casanegra.
Over the past few years these films have offered viewers an alternative to the Arab soap operas and films influenced by the dramatic Egyptian musalsalat (series).
Dramaticandoftenpatriotic,starring Egypt's highest-paid cinema legends, musalsalat reach their zenith during Ramadan. The holy festival comes with the promise of high viewer numbers, with the majority of the population taking time off to fast and celebrate. Competition among production companies for this broadcast slot is fierce and the programmes aired over this period tend to be discussed for a long time after.
Despite this strong tradition in Egyptian television and cinema, there too a new realism is taking hold. With stories about abusive husbands, violent fathers, prostitution, drug addiction and abject class differences, social issues are making their way onto seasonal prime time TV, and women are leading the way.
Scriptwriter Mariam Naoum and director Kamla Abu Zekry worked together to adapt two controversial literary pieces for the small screen. Both were aired during Ramadan: in 2013 they released Bent Esmaha Zaat ('A Girl Called Zaat'), based on a story by the Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim, and in 2014 Segn Al Nessa ('Women's Prison'), from a work by the late feminist writer Fathiya al-Assal.
A Girl Called Zaat tells the story of a woman, from the 1950s to the present, who endures a series of humiliations and oppressions – by her family, her husband, and society. "I was trying to tell not only Zaat's story but the story of the country itself, from the officers' coup in 1952 to now," Zekry explains.
"This series may have made less of a splash than Women's Prison but it will last longer. [Women's Prison] shocked a segment of the audience, who found themselves empathising with women who killed their husbands, or with prostitutes – people who do exist in our society and who are human beings like them, but far removed for social or moral reasons."
In her 2015 Ramadan series Taht el Saytara (Under Control), Naoum showed drug use among wealthy Egyptian women. Critics have accused the series of perpetuating gender stereotypes and the idea that only bad girls become addicts, rather than addressing addiction as a psychological condition.
Women in the crew
"Women and gender issues have been present in the Egyptian cinema since the1940s," says activist and writer Ghada Shahbender, who is working with renowned director Mohamed Khan
on his new film, Before the Summer Crowds. But this presence didn't necessarily translate into more women in the film industry – until now.
"With our generation, there have been more women working in the cinema, behind the camera, writing the scripts, or even at technical jobs," Abu Zekry says. "It must have had an impact on the stories we tell. However, serious topics are still very rare."
The industry saw a decline in production after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, when "no one wanted to spend money on movies", Abu Zekry says. But now, with funding picking up, there is the opportunity for more diverse films to be made.
In Morocco the turning point came in 1993 with Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi's film Looking for my wife's husband, a comic portrayal of polygamy. Movies with characters who resembled the Moroccan viewers who watched them started to be shown. Now, more than 20 years later, the baton has been passed to a young generation of directors inspired by their predecessors. The 33-year-old actor and director Younes Yousfi is of is one of them. His short film Houkak, which he says "stinks of Casablanca and sweats concrete", was released on YouTube in 2015.
"In the '80s everything was about polite- ness and political correctness," Yousfi explains. "Since 2000 we have entered a new global era of freedom. Viewers still need to be educated. They have to understand that movies can be violent or dirty. Movie-making is an art and it can't always be nice and homey."
Since the ruling Parti de la Justice et du Dévelopement's victory in 2011, part of Morocco's society has been clamouring for more "clean art", influenced by the Islamic party's huge campaign for a return to morality. This has created an even bigger gap between the conservative and liberal circles of Morocco's society. But filmmakers remain defiant.
"Much Loved clearly showed a divide in Moroccan society between those who think that art has to be family-friendly and those who want to see a representation of reality on the screen," says Ayouch. "I don't care if people like or don't like my movies as long as a diversity of points of view is allowed."●