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San Diego Arab Film Festival: New Cinema From The Maghreb

Noufissa and Fetouma and their cousins at a party in

Credit: Promotional still

Above: Noufissa and Fetouma and their cousins at a party in "Petits Bonheurs" from Morocco

— Maghrebian cinema — the films produced in the region spanning from Morocco to Tunisia — used to be one of the most dynamic and diverse of Arab-language cinemas. Films from Tunisia regularly walked away with major awards in international competition and Algerian films set the standard for dealing with post-liberation/post-civil war issues.

Much of that temporarily came to a halt with economic difficulties and the political turmoil of the Arab Spring that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and lit up the Arab states like a wildfire running through the dry brush.

Fast forward several years later and North African film is starting to enjoy a strong showing at international box offices and playing to enthusiastic domestic audiences. The output is still small — films are expensive to make and distribute, but support from regional leaders such as the King of Morocco. Mohammed VI, increasing funds from TV production companies as well as international co-production funding, countries like Morocco are looking to up their releases to at least 10 a year.

It’s a development this years’ San Diego Arab Film Festival has taken note of and included in its line-up. This weekend, Saturday feels like the day of Maghrebi Cinema with films from Morocco, Tunisia, and the diasporic North African community in France dominating the screen.

The first North African film of the day is visually one of the loveliest films to come out of Morocco recently. “Petits Bonheurs” or “Small Pleasures,” is the second feature film by Mohamed Chrif Tribak, from Larache in the north of Morocco. The film, set in the northern city of Tetouan in 1955, has enjoyed a strong run in Moroccan cinemas, thanks, in part, to Tribak’s approach which draws both from the Tunisian cinematic masters and a new tendency in Moroccan film to put women’s stories front and center.

“Petits Bonheurs” follows the growing friendship between 17-year-old Noufissa (Anissa Lanaya) and her distant cousin, Fetouma (Farah El Fassi). The two meet when Noufissa’s father dies and Fetouma’s grandmother, Lalla Amina, a close childhood friend of Noufissa’s mother, Zineb, invites them to live in the protected women’s quarters of her wealthy family’s house.

The two girls grow close, trying to navigate the changes in the new Morocco to come. Like the new country, the girls test their limits. One wears the veil, the other does not. Noufissa, the poorer cousin, opts for practical stability and an arranged marriage, Fetouma flirts with the idea of college and life outside the family walls. When one withholds a secret from the other, modernity and tradition clash with surprising results.

“Petits Bonheurs” is a lovely period piece that, like its Tunisian counterparts by Nouri Bouzid and Moufida Tlatli ( “Silences of the Palace”), uses an earlier era to comment on the present. Tribak’s lush interiors are a reminder of the sophisticated complexity of traditional Moroccan design, but also a comment on how much the world of Moroccan women has changed from the cloistered existences in their father’s houses to the guarantees of autonomy within the newer Moroccan code of the family or moudouana. As part of this portrait, Tribak infuses the film with a beautiful sense of lyricism, through the use of traditional Tetouan music and the rich layers of a classic woman’s orchestra playing centuries-old music brought to Moroccan when the kingdom of Andalusia fell to the Spanish.

“Petits Bonheurs” is not just about small pleasures in places where life is confined for women, but also the possibilities that can arise when those places open up.

It’s a film of rare visual and aural pleasure that you should not miss.

Tunisia’s accomplished cinema took a hard hit during the Arab Spring as protests brought economic instability and the government crackdowns brought censorship. However, Tunisia’s cinematic star is rising again, with films that take a deep look at a Tunisian society at the crossroads.

Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia takes a careful step back from politics and religion to look at the effect of ambition (or lack of it) on Tunisia’s young adults. In his low-key yet intimate film, “Hedi.” Ben Attia casts newcomer Mejd Mastoura as Hedi, a traveling Peugeot salesman in the historic city of Kairouan, who pretty much follows the social dictates of his mother — work hard, marry a girl from a good family, and be a good boy. Hedi gets engaged to a girl he hardly knows to keep his mother happy. It’s exhausting and he looks forward to his sales trips that take him around Tunisia, even though the economy is recovering at a snail’s pace.

On one such trip to the resort town of Mahdia, Hedi meets Rim (Rym Messaoud); a free-spirited activity director at his hotel and the two instantly hit it off.

Hedi is thrilled at the new possibilities this suggests, including indulging in his secret passion for drawing comic books. But with one week until his wedding, Hedi is fast coming to a moment where he will have to take the initiative and decide for himself what his life will be like.

“Hedi” is no barnburner, but it’s no slouch, either. Ben Attia lays out a well-paced, charming film in which the protagonist, Hedi, seems to evoke both the old Tunisia almost stupefied by the weight of a prodigal government and entrenched social expectations, and the new, eager for progress but unsure of what that might look like.

Will Hedi be there for the wedding guests? Come Saturday to find out.

The Maghreb lies just beneath the cultural and metaphorical space that French citizens of North African origin inhabit. Called “Beurs” after the slang term for Arabs, they have come a long way from the open hostility of the 1980s toward France’s former colonials, but things still have a ways to go. French citizens of Arab origin hold major political offices, head up important companies, and graduate from top schools, but there are still problems with economic opportunity and social acceptance despite holding French citizenship for several generations. Last year, France’s far-right party, the Front National, made significant headway with its anti-immigrant, pro-traditional French identity politics, scaring much of France’s liberal Left.

French director Rachid Djaidani, son of immigrant parents from Algeria and Sudan, knows this well. In his second feature, slyly named “Tour de France,” Djaidani takes a playful yet solid look at the two Frances, that of classic France and the France of immigrants and global citizens, and finds that maybe they are not that different after all.

“Tour de France” pairs Far’Hook (French rapper Sadek Bourgeba) with Serge (a solid looking Gerard Depardieu) on a road trip that will test the patience of both and their understanding of what it means to be French.

Far’Hook is a young French rapper who winds up on the wrong side of certain people in his neighborhood and needs to lay low for a while. His producer, Bilal, a French convert, thinks his father, Serge, needs a driver for his trip through the ports of France, following the trail of the classic French painter Claude Joseph Vernet. It’s not the best of pairings for a long road trip. Serge is upset at his son for converting, Far’Hook feels somewhat rejected by French society, but Far’Hook needs to get to a concert in Marseille and Serge is not the most careful of drivers. By the time they make it to Marseille, Serge has a better sense of the new France coming into being, and Far’Hook may have made a friend.

It’s a predictable ending, but it’s the journey and the little revelations about rhyme and race that make it worth viewing.

“Petits Bonheurs,” “Hedi” and “Tour de France" screen Saturday at the San Diego Arab Film Festival at the AMC Mission Valley. See the festival’s website for times and details.


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