Bringing it all Back Home

By Yto Barrada


The Tangier Cinémathèque Project

Let me begin with a confession: I have a penchant for conversations in dark movie theatres. My untimely comments and interjections continue despite complaints from all sides. From the first moments of a film, I begin trying to guess the next shot, calling out to the actors if danger is lurking. This propensity is as irrepressible for me as it is unbearable to Parisians. There’s nothing I can do about it: I am not from here. I’m from Tangier, on the northern tip of Morocco.

Everything you’ve heard about cosmopolitan Tangier is true. Its clichés are easily verifiable: the pearl of the Strait; Ibn Batouta; Burroughs and Bowles; kif and contraband; rural exodus and illegal emigration. It’s all true. Nostalgia for the International Zone – a.k.a. Interzone (1912-1956) still wields its mysterious charm across the globe. The recently deceased writer Mohamed Choukri used to explain with relish how that nostalgia spared no one, even those too young to have known that age d’or. I will add a little something however: from being always confronted with these cheap, artificial realities, people who live in the actual contemporary city of Tangier are bored, extremely bored.

I left Tangier in 1989 to study abroad, as people move to Paris from provinces everywhere. This year I will go home to help renovate a cinema from the 1950s, a theatre so charming it gives me butterflies. By 2004, we intend to reopen the Cinéma Rif as Tangier’s Cinémathèque.

The government is already planning Tangier’s rebirth: a second port; a new industrial zone; tourist infrastructure stretching in a wall of grey concrete along the Mediterranean from Larache to Tangier, which hopes to welcome a million tourists a year.

Yet in the decade since Europe’s own borders were stubbornly sealed, young Moroccans have sunk further and further into unemployment, boredom and solipsism. Each year more of them tempt fate by illegally crossing the treacherous waters in tiny fishing boats. Ours has become a one-way Strait.

Well, if the mountain can’t come to Mohamed, Mohamed must go to the mountain. We are boastful about our lack of modesty. With our Cinémathèque, we want to offer Tangerines more than just a distraction from their isolation. In practical terms, the aim of this space is to introduce Moroccans to national and international cinema. Our programming will defy the current hegemony of commercial films in Morocco.

Other cinemas have had their moments of glory in Tangier – the Lux, the Roxy, the Goya, the Paris and the Mauritania. Our cinema is called Rif after the mountains of Northern Morocco, the rugged fatherland of Abdelkrim Khattabi, hero of the Rif war, who was an inspiration to Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara.

For some time now, the 500 seat Rif cinema has been screening exclusively Bollywood B-movies. We will program a selection of classic and newly released Middle Eastern, European, Latin American and North American narrative films, documentaries, shorts, videos, animation and children’s pictures. In the future, the Cinémathèque will also host premieres, workshops, festivals and distinguished filmmakers. Finally and very importantly, we will build a comprehensive collection of documentary films, including works by Avi Mograbi, Max Lemcke, Johan Van der Keuken, Danielle Arbid, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker. We wish to make the Cinémathèque a privileged and democratic space of knowledge, information and critical thought, where films like Kazan’s America, America can mix with Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki, Le Ballon Rouge and Harry Potter.


The Rif stands at the top of the Grand Socco, the large square just outside the walls of the old city, made famous by a Joseph Kessel story. Socco is Spanish for market and, during the Spanish occupation, the Socco was lined with Moorish cafés, stalls selling spices and citrus fruits, beneath the gaze of the distinguished minaret of the Sidi Bouabid mosque.

For us, the decisive fact was this: if you rotate the projector 180 degrees, it can face the square, allowing open air screenings in the Grand Socco, which can easily accommodate an audience of 4000. For the first time in years, the inhabitants of Tangiers will be invited to open-air screenings of classic movies.

Another specialty of Tangier is smuggling, and part of our agenda is covertly to import some ‘culture’ into this walled city, which today has no real theatre, no concert hall and no art school. In time, we hope that high quality movie programming will become a natural part of the landscape there, as the Cinémathèque takes root.

For the moment, the Tangier Cinémathèque will be nearly unique in Africa and in the Arab World. We are embarking on a journey, here in our hometown at the beginning of a challenging road and, to reach our destination, we will need the guidance and support of colleagues throughout the international film community – distributors, festival directors, stock houses and filmmakers who want to bring their resources and experience to Tangier.

This is a propitious time for northern Morocco and the Cinémathèque wants to help restore vigour and glamour to this once international city. Then, at last, Tangerines and their friends will be able to watch films in the Grand Socco, smoke, drink café americano, and talk back to the screen as we please, beneath a starry sky.

"If you make films to follow the public taste, you end up chasing your own arse." – Max Ophuls

Yto Barrada is an artist and the Programmer/Creative Director of the Tangier Cinémathèque project.

Many thanks to Arusha Topazzini for translating this article.