A major work has just been rescued from oblivion: La septième porte (The Seventh Door). It is a work of scholarship as much as storytelling, in which the poet, novelist and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011) retraces 24 years of Moroccan film history:
By Kenza Sefrioui
Translated by R.
Ahmed Bouanani, La septième porte. Une histoire du cinéma au Maroc de 1907 à 1986. Kulte Editions, 336 p., €25.
It was the only book that Ahmed Bouanani wanted to publish, but he died believing that the manuscript had been destroyed when his house burned down. The author of the flamboyant The Hospital (published by Al Kalam in 1990 and by Verdier in 2012, translated to English by Lara Vergnaud) had been working since the 1960s on writing the history of cinema in his country, “because no one else had done it.”
At the time, Bouanani was working at the Moroccan Center for Cinematography, which imposed a bureaucratic discipline on his entire generation of young artists, who were assigned to administrative tasks. He was regularly at odds with his superiors, as has been recounted by Ali Essafi, who devoted a documentary to him (“In Search of the Seventh Door,” 2018), and Bouanani was often sent to the archives. There, he would spend hours reading magazines and watching films, taking notes on everything, especially every name that appeared in the credits. The Seventh Door recounts not only the rise of Moroccans in cinema, but also the evolution of Moroccans’ perspective on themselves.
The book opens with a tribute to Mohamed Ousfour, pioneer of the seventh art at a time when “seeing a Moroccan armed with a camera [was] as rare if not as inconceivable as meeting a dinosaur at the end of the street,” because “Osfour, coming from a people deprived of a voice, illiterate, and crazy from sheer madness, had the reaction, ever so sound, when he went to the cinema, to say to himself: ‘And why not me?'” Bouanani then provides a timeline, distinguishes between feature films and short subjects, offers in the appendix a filmmaker’s dictionary, and insists on the importance of the creation, in 1980, of a support fund, making a “demarcation line” between the industry’s “infancy” from 1956 to 1980 and the consolidation of a domestic film industry. Actors, screenwriters, support structures, magazines, festivals and censorship: he is as interested in the works as he is in the conditions that surround their production.
The great originality of his approach is that he does not begin his history with the independence of Morocco, in 1956, but instead considers the perspective bequeathed by colonial-era cinema. Despite the mediocrity of those works, Bouanani believed that some of them deserve to be “part of the collection of a national film library to be built” someday; for example, the works of André Zwoboda, “Daughter of the Sands” and “The Seventh Door,” a story of curiosity from which Bouanani’s book borrows its title. What interests Bouanani is how, over the long term, a visual heritage took shape. Attentive to the use of languages, he recalls that films were sometimes shot in two versions, one in French with French actors, the other with Arab actors, but…in classical Arabic!
If The Seventh Door is admirable for its precise information on actors and directors who are almost forgotten today, it is also a work of great freedom. The historical approach does not prevent Bouanani from delivering his artistic point of view on his peers, sometimes in an uncompromising manner, but always “honest,” following his own course. Bouanani belonged to the post-independence generation: He published his first poems in the famous magazine Souffles, around which an intellectual and artistic movement had crystallized to reclaim national culture, to make it a modern culture open to the universal. This undertaking included a reconsideration of works dating to the protectorate era and the creation of a new analytical framework, free of prejudices and interpretations in service of colonialism.
What Bouanani does in The Seventh Door is part of this intellectual and political project of forming a critical apparatus. But he does not do this as a poet, but rather as a storyteller nourished by oral traditions which he helped to catalogue, and with his own music. Bouanani recounts scenarios, he details the atmosphere of the scenes, he attests to reception, and he presents himself as an often ironic, sometimes humorous commentator, in dialogue with his reader. From Mohamed Ousfour to Moumen Smihi; from Nabyl Lahlou to Mohamed Regab; he evokes and brings a world to life, like a fabulous theater, under his often tough gaze. “For 30 years, the history of Moroccan cinema will have been in fact only a struggle, a search for oneself, for our language, for our face freed of the mask. A Sisyphean work with a rock white and polished, like an egg, like a birth (or rebirth).”
The publication of The Seventh Door is, moreover, the culmination of a remarkable editorial effort. Indeed, following a fire at the family home, all Ahmed Bouanani’s documents were scattered and damaged. Touda Bouanani — an artist, videographer, and daughter of the author — therefore undertook, at first with her mother, the costume designer Naïma Saoudi, and then with a whole team, to reconstitute and sort the different drafts of the book. A first kernel dating from 1967 was developed in 1968; Ahmed Bouanani took up the text again in 1984, then in 1987. It was that last version which he wished to see published with abundant images, but he had not found a publisher in Morocco and did not plan to publish abroad. Marie Pierre-Bouthier, who devoted her doctorate to Moroccan documentary film, typed up the different manuscripts. Touda Bouanani, Ali Essafi, the researcher and translator Omar Berrada, and the editorial teams at Kulte then compared the versions, identified variations, and finalized the text, with its copious indexes and appendices. After seven years of work, this major work is finally available.
Kenza Sefrioui is a cultural journalist, literary critic and publisher. She was in charge of the literary section in the Journal hebdomadaire from 2005 to 2010 and collaborates with Tel Quel, Diptyk and http://www.economia.ma. She wrote a doctoral thesis in comparative literature at the University Paris IV-Sorbonne on the magazine Souffles (1966-1973), espoirs de révolution culturelle au Maroc (Sirocco Edition, 2013 Grand Atlas Prize). Also, she co-directed Casablanca œuvre ouverte, a new edition of Casablanca, fragments d’imaginaire with a second volume, Casablanca poème urbain on contemporary writings in Casablanca. (Le Fennec, 2013). As co-founder of the editions En toutes lettres and cultural activist, she published Le livre à l’épreuve, les failles de la chaîne au Maroc (En toutes lettres, 2017). She also collaborated with Leila Slimani on the book Casablanca, nid d’artistes, an emotional stroll in Casablanca, edited by Malika Editions in December 2018.
R. is a student and contributor to WorldKidLit. They live in Rabat.