Ben Barka Film and the Political Employment of Moroccan History – The Moroccan Deep


Point of view

The path and fate of the movie “From Sand and Fire” by well-known Moroccan director Souheil Ben Barka seems somewhat strange. He won a prize at a festival in America, but without winning any coronation in Morocco, according to what was officially announced. The film passed unnoticed in 2019, that is, before Corona, without having clear national attention in public debate and film and historical criticism and in the halls, despite the effort and the major budget allocated to it, which is 15 million euros (about 18 million dirhams).

The events of this film revolve around the adventures of “Ali Bay”, which is the nickname of a Spanish army officer whose real name is “Domingo Badia”. He is an eccentric spy and adventurer with great ambitions. He moved to implement his political projects or power projects that moved him between several countries such as France, Syria, Morocco and others. It is also possible that he was behind the idea of ​​drawing up the first constitution to regulate Al-Salt in Morocco. At the beginning of the 19th century, Spain decided to send him to Morocco with a false identity with the aim of staging a coup against the Moroccan Sultan, Moulay Suleiman, to achieve its colonial ambitions, during the period between 1802 and 1818. In addition to espionage, he had extraordinary cultural and scientific capabilities and spoke several languages, including Arabic. Several mysterious aspects remained in his path until he died in Syria and left a book entitled “Ali Bey’s Travels in Africa and Asia.” When he came to Morocco, he was able to get close to the Sultan and become one of his friends, and the movie tells that he planned a coup against him with the support of some tribes.

The film was first shown in Morocco in its French-language version on the sidelines of the twentieth session of the National Film Festival in Tangiers in March 2019 outside the official competition. According to press sources, Benbarka did not nominate his film for the official competition at the festival. Why did not nominate? Is it not a Moroccan movie? Or was it that commercial and political considerations ruled that, under the pretext that it had been decided to present it in 40 countries and in multiple languages, as was officially said? And only in November 2019, he began his commercial promotion in Morocco and was shown in halls in both Arabic and French, and he also received an official presentation ceremony at the Mohammed VI Museum of Contemporary Art in Rabat. Despite this clear support by the state, it was not received by the public or critically. So that the national press during the period of its screening, for example, spoke about the American movie “Joker” dozens of times more than what happened with Ben Barka, despite the importance of the latter.

The initial reading of the film reveals great artistic and technical capabilities comparable to a number of international cinematic productions, and it is a well-known technical empowerment of Benbarka who has experience and a large network of relationships. Italy in particular. These capabilities appear at the level of the image, representation, scenario, etc., but the film gives the impression that it is more foreign than national, despite dealing with the history of Morocco at a decisive stage in facing the shock of Western civilization and its attempt to get out of its historical backwardness before it fell into the hands of Spanish and French colonialism. The director has shown boldness and ambition by addressing an important and complex topic. He also accidentally touched the dates and events of other countries, namely Spain, France and Syria. He also made an effort at the level of the Arabic language and digging into Moroccan history by providing a special reading of the problem of this civilization trauma. However, the spirit of the film and its general atmosphere do not highlight the Moroccan character. Despite the landscapes, clothes and faces, there is a tyranny of folklore and French and the cultural references of the latter, with the dominance of the foreign actor in the main roles. Is it difficult for the Moroccan actor to play these roles?

For the director, it was clear to the director in this film a kind of political use of history, a tradition that Ben Barka has persisted in his cinematic path with some successes, as it happened in the film “The Three Kings” about the battle of Wadi al-Makhzen and in the film “Amoc” about the apartheid regime in South Africa. In “From Sand and Fire” the official story prevails and prevails over other narratives. This is evident on several levels. It is a simplistic narrative that, on the one hand, wants to say that the ruling authority is always right, and that the people are wrong. It is a people that the film reveals how it was living in great backwardness in the fields of knowledge and knowledge, and on the other hand it adopts a strange and somewhat populist view that says that everything that comes from the foreigner is wrong and dangerous. The film did not want to present some fundamental political issues, such as the idea of ​​the constitution that the Spanish spy had brought up and suggested to the Sultan, but he rejected it. This was indicated in the film in one sentence during a passing dialogue, even though historians of the constitution in Morocco consider it the first draft constitution known to Morocco and it could have been one of the keys to reform regardless of whether a foreigner was the one who brought it up. So that stopping at this event and deepening its discussion would have given a special light to the film and link the past with the present.

On the other hand, the film offers a special reading of the phenomenon of political Islam, whereby it considers that the extremist interpretation of the religious text today is the one that has produced phenomena such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and does not pay any attention to other well-known explanations provided by a number of researchers who link the phenomenon of Islamist violence with the absence of democracy, justice and widespread bribery in the Arab region. . Suhail Ben Barka’s film defends, using liberal arguments, with high human and technical means, its ideology and its own version of history. If these great means and the director’s long experience got rid of the ideology, it would have given a lot of radiation to the soft power of Moroccan cinema, but this would happen because ideology is always so closely linked to technology that it cannot live and survive without it.


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