Daily Podcast #04 Omar Berrada /// Decolonizing the Screen



Omar Berrada is a writer, translator and curator, and the director of Dar al-Ma’mûn, a library and artists residency in Marrakech. His work focuses on the politics of translation and intergenerational transmission. He has edited several books, most recently The Africans (Kulte Editions, Rabat), a volume on migration and racial dynamics in Morocco. Among his recent exhibitions are Station Point with Saba Innab at ifa-Gallery Berlin and The Power of Two Suns with Yto Barrada and Bettina at LMCC on Governors Island, NY. His writing is included in The University of California Book of North African Literature and Poetic Justice: An Anthology of Contemporary Moroccan Poetry, among others. Currently living in New York, he teaches at The Cooper Union where he and Leslie Hewitt co-organize the IDS Lecture Series.


As many of us are currently confined at home in many places of the world, and while we keep in our minds and in our hearts those who have no choice but to be at risk from the ongoing worldwide pandemic, because they’re doctors, nurses, cashiers, workers, homeless, incarcerated, or in any other precarious situation, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast to use this time to reflect and organizing without talking about the pandemic itself — there might be already enough about it.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 



Omar Berrada: The question you asked made me want to speak about something that’s close to my heart and close to the work I’ve been doing in and on Morocco, and in particular Moroccan cinema. 

I’ve been working for a few years on the archive and work of Ahmed Bouanani who is a Moroccan writer, filmmaker, historian, poet… He was a jack of all trades, not necessarily because he wanted to be, but because the situation, the historical situation he found himself in, led him to do that. And what came to my mind when you asked me this question about a true moment of decolonization is something that was written about him 40 years ago, in 1980. Bouanani made several short films and one feature film called Assarab, or Le Mirage. Le Mirage came out in 1980. When it came out in theaters, a journalist called Abdelkader Chabih wrote the following in an Arabic newspaper in Morocco – I’m just doing a kind of improvised translation: he says, “The long queues in front of the Septième Art cinema in Rabat for the screenings of The Mirage by Bouanani do not mean that, out of spite, Moroccans are taking refuge in the darkness of the cinemas. On the contrary, they are running, with joy, towards their image, their being and their truth.” And a little further he says, “For a long time, Moroccans have lived separated or even uprooted from all the paths that lead to the mirror. And today, the Moroccan Film Center is waking up momentarily from its legendary slumber so that they—Moroccans—can rub shoulders with themselves, for a few hours at least.” 

I’m really interested in the idea of decolonization as a struggle for self-reinvention, or for dispelling this kind of thick cloud that stands between us and ourselves. I mean, you could define colonization that way. One of the things that colonization does is dispossess you of your identity; it prevents you from seeing yourself. And the challenge is how to undistort the view. How do you own your own image? So, can a film do that? And at what conditions can film do that? And how come this journalist thought that Bouanani’s Le Mirage was doing that? And why was it necessary to still be doing that in 1980? I mean, Morocco gained independence in 1956—24 years earlier. There’s this notion that gaining independence, like Morocco did in 1956, is not enough to be decolonized. There’s something about coloniality that lingers, that stays with us long after. I mean, it stays in the form of neocolonial economies of extraction and all of that, but it also stays in the way we look at ourselves, which was inculcated to our parents and grandparents during the colonial period, which remains with us, and which we still need to work on dismantling all the time. 

To say a word about Ahmed Bouanani: he was born in 1938, meaning that when Morocco gained independence in 1956, he was 18 years old. He was brought up within a colonial system of education but he came of age as an artist at a moment, right after independence, when the country was rebuilding itself in some way. And with other artists and writers of his generation, he was engaged in a process that some called cultural decolonization. This is the expression used by the journal Souffles, which was started in 1966, 10 years after independence, by a group of writers and artists led by Abdellatif Laâbi, who were saying, “Okay, we have independence, we have an independent state. But obviously, administrative decolonization is not enough. We need cultural decolonization, we need new ways of looking at ourselves.” And it feels to me that somebody like Ahmed Bouanani did this throughout his life, in writing, in film and everything else. 

So just to be a little more specific and say a word about this film, The Mirage, that I started with. It was made in 1979-1980, but it is set in 1947. It is set during the colonial period. And it tells the story of this guy who’s in the countryside, and who’s waiting in line to get a sack of flour from the colonial authorities, you know, food. And in the sack of flour, he finds a lot of money, banknotes, an unexpected treasure. And he’s wondering how to convert this currency, in order to be able to use it. It’s French money. And so he goes to the city and tries to figure out his way around. Of course, it doesn’t go well at all, this kind of treasure hunt. At the time when the film was made, Morocco was still largely rural, but the movement of people from the country to the city in search of economic solutions for their lives was becoming prominent. So the film takes a phenomenon from 1980 and stages it in 1947. It offers a take on the colonial now by staging it in the time of actual colonization. And the most important aspect of the film is not necessarily the story itself, but all the details of constructing and filming it. It’s how much the filmmaker cares for his characters, how carefully he chose them, how carefully he chose to show certain categories of Moroccan population that were not the ones you would see in the state media, for instance, at the time. How carefully he crafted the dialogue so that you can hear different accents, different ways in which the Moroccan vernacular is spoken in the city and in the countryside. 

One thing that happened in most countries that decolonized politically is that you end up with an authoritarian state that takes over and constructs a narrative of national unity, which is very much what happened in Morocco. And what people like Bouanani and other artists were trying to do is first of all, of course, all the work that was still to be done in order to unravel the colonial narratives that were left by the French, by the colonizers, but also to refuse the kind of forced unity of narrative imposed by the Moroccan state. To always foreground a people in all of its diversities, to always bring back to the center stories that were marginalized by the colonizers and by the state. It’s kind of like a double refusal, or what Abdelkebir Khatibi, another Moroccan thinker, called the double critique, which is not just a critique, in the sense that it means to build something else. And that “building something else” is not only telling another story, it’s finding another way to tell the story. 

So for Bouanani what that meant, and I didn’t have time to rewatch the movie before speaking to you, but I watched the opening scene, and the opening scene has the main character who’s a guy in the countryside, a little bit in despair. And it starts with him just thinking, speaking to himself. He’s saying these words that sound like proverbs, an old kind of language, in the mode of storytelling. You feel he’s not speaking only for himself, he’s not only telling his own story, he is telling the story of a whole group of people; the voice of the collective is already there in the voice of the individual. It’s like a poetics of the fable, of the legend, a poetics of storytelling. Like an epic without a hero, or with the people as a collective hero. And this is something that Bouanani did a lot in his work, and in his films in particular: to affirm that our specific mode of narration is storytelling, is the circle of storytelling: there’s somebody telling the story, there are people around them, and there’s a call-and-response. In the film’s opening scene, the character appeals to the words of the “jdoud” – the grandparents, or the ancestors. It’s never a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, or a psychological drama or something like that. There’s always a sense of confronting history, at every moment. Each shot is deliberate, each frame is an act of reclamation: reclaiming a landscape, a song, a face, a street corner… Nothing can be insignificant, nothing can be insignificant.

One other thing that I can say regarding “it’s not about only telling another story, but about the way you tell the story”, has to do with the question of chronology. There’s something you could call maybe vernacular time. Time doesn’t flow in the same way in a film by Bouanani as it does in a Hollywood drama, for instance. There is another film of his, Mémoire 14, where he is trying to reconstruct the history of Morocco out of archival images. And he’s not naming the years, you know, 1910, 1920… It always says, “the year of the gazelle”, “the year of the locusts”, “the year of the good harvest”… Even though this is a professionally trained filmmaker who has gone to film school in France, and all of that, when it comes to the history of the country, he’s trying to tell it with the voice of the people who have lived it, the marginalized voices, from whose point of view it has never been told publicly. It’s always a matter of how to redirect the gaze, how to make a frame, what it is you choose to show and how you show it. 
Technically, some of this has to do with the fact that Ahmed Bouanani was trained as a film editor. So the question of montage is extremely important. For instance with this movie that I’m talking about, Memory 14, in which he’s trying to re-tell the history of Morocco, the history of pre-colonial and colonial Morocco, he says the only moving images we have to tell this story are images that were shot by the French, they are images of conquest, they are images that aim to show a country that is in chaos, and that they came to pacify, to organize, to civilize and so on. So he’s like, These are the only images at my disposal, so I am going to use them, but I’m going to use them against themselves. So I take them, I cut them, I take away the soundtrack, I make a new soundtrack. And I edit them, I re-sequence them, I create a different chronology. I narrate the history differently, I take over my own history by resequencing the images of the colonizers, so it stops being linear, it stops being a story of pacification, it becomes something else entirely, a story of resistance. This is an act of decolonization because, by re-reading the past, it re-opens a future. So that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in the films and the work of Ahmed Bouanani in general, as a kind of contribution to true decolonization, as a reminder of the deep work that form, aesthetic form, can do to reframe the way we look at history. If you do that deep work, aesthetics becomes necessarily politics as well. It’s not only about taking over the means of production. It’s not only that now we have video cameras and we can film, because it would be very easy to have video cameras and end up filming just like the colonizers used to. It’s about this challenge of producing a new kind of subjectivity, a new kind of gaze.