Hitchcock heads to Morocco
The Hitchcock programme at Avenida Cinema
Students in Tetouan
Film journalist, curator and academic Ian Haydn Smith writes about the experience of working with the British Council's programme to bring HItchcock's early films to several cities in Morocco, and discussing the master's work with local students.
Aside from Morocco’s rich domestic film activity with films ranging from Traces to Marock to Horses of God – the country has a long heritage of attracting international productions. Louis Lumière, one half of early cinema’s pioneering siblings, shot Le Chevrier Marocain there in 1897. Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, David Lean, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ridley Scott all shot in the country.
Even Alfred Hitchcock filmed in Morocco. In 1956, he used the stunning Jemaa El-Fnaa – the bustling square at the heart of Marrakech’s Medina – as the backdrop to the events that find James Stewart and Doris Day at the heart of an espionage plot in the director’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Hitchcock has now returned to Morocco for three weeks, this time as part of a programme of screenings and talks based on four of the nine restored silent films the director made between 1926-28. (The BFI had recently restored the Hitchcock 9, which have also toured to other countries including the US and Russia).
Included in the Moroccan programme is his directorial debut The Pleasure Garden and first thriller The Lodger (both from 1926). Students and audiences had the chance to watch and discuss these key films in Hitchcock’s impressive body of work.
Accompanying the films was Stephen Horne, who is unique among the world’s most acclaimed silent cinema accompanists for the eclectic range of instruments he uses throughout each performance.
After the initial screenings in Rabat were a success, the Hitchcock silent screenings moved to the Moroccan coastal town of Agadir and were expanded to include two local universities: Ibn Zohr and Universaopolis.
While Horne accompanied screenings of The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill and The Ring at the French Institute, students from two universities gathered for a series of discussions on the importance of Alfred Hitchcock’s work and its subsequent influence, both on filmmakers and culturally.
Key to discussions by both groups of students at Ibn Zohr and Universaopolis was the complexity of film language and its employment in conveying meaning to audiences. The opening of Rear Window (1954) highlighted the power of the director’s dictum "show don’t tell", in which the elements essential to the film’s narrative and our understanding of James Stewart’s central character are conveyed visually over the course of the film’s first three minutes. Likewise, one of the climactic scenes in the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which takes place in the Royal Albert Hall, illustrated the influences of D.W. Griffith, German Expressionism and Soviet Montage on Hitchcock’s style. Whilst the school attack sequence of The Birds (1963) offered a perfect example of the director’s handling suspense through the shifts between subjective and objective perspectives, giving audiences more information that the character’s on screen, heightening the tension of a scene.
However, these moments, highlighting Hitchcock’s brilliance as a filmmaker – and a development of the elements present in the earlier films – also opened up the discussion on film as a medium for manipulation and propaganda. In particular, discussion turned to Clint Eastwood's recent American Sniper and the way that cinema can present an alternate history that may prove to be the permanent record of events. As the killing of Liberty Valance in John Ford’s classic 1962 western showed that "when truth becomes legend", it is sometimes easier to "print the legend", so Eastwood's film prompted discussion on how easy it is for the media and film in particular to change history.
Students of the Department of Cinema & Audio-visual Studies, in the Faculty of Letters and Humanities at Abdelmalek Essaadi University, attended a two-day workshop that placed Alfred Hitchcock’s silent films, which were screening at the beautiful Avenida Cinema in the heart of Tetouán’s town centre, a stone’s throw from its stunning medina, within the wider context of his film career, which ran from 1926-76. The sessions were intended as a platform for the students, a mix of narrative and documentary filmmakers, to discuss form and content, through examples of Hitchcock’s and other directors’ work.
As at the universities in Agadir, the sessions began with simple textual analysis of scenes from Hitchcock’s later films, but with each nightly screening at the impressively grand Avenida Cinema – whose 900+ seat auditorium recalls the grand European movie halls of the 1920s and 1930s – the students drew on their own viewing and filmmaking experience to explore the importance of Hitchcock as an innovator.
The third day at the university was given over to the screening of excerpts, mostly documentaries, from films by graduates and students. Le Pioneer du Cinema Morocain Mohammed Osfour and Meijor une film meilleure had played at festivals with the latter title garnering one of the top awards at the Marrakech Film Festival.
Clandestinité Digne offered an portrait of life for illegal immigrants in Morocco, opening with the tragic death of one man and working back in an attempt to understand how his life had become so desperate. Sourieres sous les décombres, a semi-fictional film in the style of early Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, explored the impact of war on two street urchins whose life has been torn apart by conflict, while Ghassan Salhab captures the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard’s political cinema in its portrait of the eponymous Senegalese-born, Lebanese filmmaker.