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American Film Showcase: A 'Journey' to Morocco

By Ramona Diaz

In September 2013, I traveled to Morocco as a film envoy for the American Film Showcase (AFS), a partnership between the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the USC School of Cinematic Arts; IDA and Film Independent are partners. AFS' mission is to foster cultural diplomacy by presenting independent films to audiences who would otherwise not have access to such work.

The plan was to screen my film Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey-about Filipino musician Arnel Pineda, who was plucked from YouTube to become the front man for iconic American rock band Journey-in four cities and to conduct a production workshop for aspiring filmmakers in the desert town of Ouarzazate.

Casablanca, the capital, is a cosmopolitan, chaotic city. Walking around Casa (as the locals call it) that first day, I was surprised to see numerous references to the classic eponymous film on a billboard, in a store window,on a menu. There's even a Rick's Café, designed after the bar made famous in the movie. As I reached the imposing Hassan II Mosque with its hand-crafted marble walls, set on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, I came upon a sea of colorful hijabs and austere abayas, people of all ages, waiting in the courtyard for the evening prayers.

I struck up a conversation with a group of young women and eventually the talk turned to King Mohammed VI, who had succeeded his father, Hassan II, well known for his autocratic and repressive rule. The women spoke kindly of their reform-minded king; although he is both the secular and spiritual leader and holds extensive powers, Mohammed VI presides over a moderate Islamic government. Under him, women have gained more rights through the revised family code (mudawana). There is still widespread opposition to the reform, however, because it is perceived to be rooted in Western secular principles. 

At 5:00 a.m. the next day, I met up with Alan Barker, principle investigator of AFS and associate dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts; Andrea Appell, public affairs officer at DAR America, the US Consulate General's Public Affairs Section in Morocco; Cultural Affairs Assistant Abdellah Chebri; and the driver, Issam Haddouch. We started the seven-hour drive to Ouarzazate in the dark, through the Tizi n Tichka, the mountain pass through the High Atlas Mountains that leads to Ouarzazate. Issam favored Yusuf Islam (née Cat Stevens) for our musical entertainment, so it was "Wild World," "Father and Son" and "Moonshadow," with everyone singing along (okay, maybe not Alan) as the sun rose over the breathtaking landscape.

Ouarzazate, bordered by the Sahara Desert to the south, is the cinema capital of Morocco. The town is as mellow as Casa is frenetic. Said Andam of the Ouarzazate Film Commission gave us a tour of the cinema museum and the Atlas Studios, where blockbusters such as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Babel and Kundun were filmed. The sets were as imposing as the landscape. Later that evening, we screened Don't Stop Believin' for film commission members and the film students who were going to participate in the workshop the next day.

The workshop was held at the Univisitaire Ibn Zohr Faculté Polydisciplinaire’s film school. The idea was to divide the three days into pre-production, production and post-production, with the goal of producing four short films that would be screened at the end of the third day. It was filmmaking on steroids.

There were 16 participants, most of whom I had met the night before. For the first session, I had planned on giving a basic primer on documentaries, but it became apparent to me that the group was more sophisticated than I was led to believe. The discussion became more masterly and penetrating, with a rich range of topics addressed: if and how the presence of the camera changes people's behavior; ethics; authorship; emotional truth versus literal truth; the role of citizen journalists; and if objectivity can really exist, given that film is a mediated experience. The question of authorship came up when someone asked if I'd ever consider making a film in Morocco, since there were so many stories to tell there. This led to the notion that Moroccans should be telling their own stories, that they are the best authors of their narratives.

This is a big part of what AFS is all about—encouraging people to take ownership of their own stories and find their voice, through filmmaking. At the practical level, the students wanted to know how to handle immense amounts of footage. We talked about rhythm and pacing, about how editing is all about unearthing the golden moments and about how to build bridges between the moments. When we started, I had planned on screening clips but, due to technical problems, it wasn’t possible. However, the discussion was so robust and invigorating, I didn’t need the clips.

Fourteen out of 16 students returned for the second session; the other two could not commit to the three days because of work. And as in the morning session, the students dove in. One student even shot pre-interviews and scouted locations during the break and showed pictures of her efforts while she pitched.

After a long evening of pitches, the class chose the top four: Cave Woman, a portrait of a Berber woman who lives in a cave; Tomorrow, which examines the irony of cinema capital Ouarzazate lacking a movie theater; L'artiste, in which a local artist gives up his dream of operating an art gallery after converting his space into a restaurant in order to survive; and Nemu, a portrait of the most famous horse in the history of cinema, and his equally famous trainer.

The next day, we divided the students into crews (director, assistant director, cinematographer and sound person), equipped them with gear, and sent them on their way. The students who pitched the stories had the option to direct, and all four chose that option. Everyone had to wrap by 5:00 and be back at the university by 6:00 to debrief and start digitizing footage. After visiting the "sets," we rushed back to the university to set up the editing bays. 

Armed with 45 minutes of footage, which was the maximum they were allowed to shoot, the goal was to have as close to a fine cut, or locked picture, as we could by the evening of the third day in order to screen it for friends and family. 

This trip was filled with indelible moments, but the one that I will always remember is 14 aspiring filmmakers in a sun-streaked room in this small town by the Sahara gathered around four computer stations editing their short films. The students were in accordance with one another, arguing about shots and openings and endings. I emphasized process and that often in the real-world artistic differences will occur but, at the end of the day, the team has to serve the director’s vision (that didn’t go over very well). The voices flowed in a mix of French, Moroccan Arabic and perhaps even Berber. It had been three intense days and now the teams were down to the wire.

The image comes to mind because it was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The landscape outside the unadorned windows was certainly different; even the desert light was a more saturated, high-definition blue. And the mix of languages—the “Wow, I can still understand French, but wait a minute, it’s now Arabic” experience—made my head explode. But stripped down to its essence, this was uncomplicated, straightforward and familiar territory. The impulse to tell singular, compelling stories and to want audiences to empathize with your characters and let their voices be heard is as old as the Atlas Mountains that surrounded the desert town. Inside this overlapping circle is where all filmmakers live, no matter their circumstance.

After Ouarzazate, there were three more screenings of Don't Stop Believin': in Safi and El Jadida, port cities by the Atlantic; and a final one in Casablanca. We screened the film for audiences who had no idea who the band Journey was. I had shown the film outside the United States in the past and there was always a handful in the audience who were familiar with Journey, or with Arnel Pineda.

Not so in Morocco. And it was a liberating experience. Freed from the cultural baggage, the audiences saw reflected back at them their own experiences and aspirations. And I think it is for this reason that the film was not universally perceived as a rock 'n’ roll Cinderella story. For some in the audience, Arnel was a tortured artist, trapped in a seemingly beautiful dream, unable to make his own voice be heard because he was singing someone else’s songs. It was a cautionary tale: Be careful what you wish for.

That the film transcended its cultural specificity was ennobling. Men and women, young and old, felt a kinship with Arnel. It didn’t matter that the frame was sometimes filled with subtitles in three languages all at once: English, Tagalog and Arabic. It didn’t matter that the sound was coming out of a small laptop or the film was being projected onto a makeshift screen. I felt silly worrying about the 5.1 Dolby E sound and the correct aspect ratio, luxuries that I’m allowed to harp about at most screenings. In these instances, story ruled. It brought me back to what is essential.

Ramona S. Diaz is a filmmaker whose previous films include the Sundance and IDA Documentary Award-winning Imelda (Independent Lens) and The Learning (POV). She is currently at work on The Bill, which is funded by ITVS' Diversity Development Fund, Sundance, Chicken & Egg and the Catapult Film Fund.