Night Flight’s World Music Library: Featuring eight music docs by Moroccan-born producer/director Izza Génini

By on October 14, 2016

We’re launching our World Music Library selections with eight music documentaries by Moroccan-born producer/director Izza Génini. Check out our new category — World Music Library: Morocco — over on Night Flight Plus.

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Transes (directed by Ahmed El Maanouni, 1981)

Night Flight’s Stuart Shapiro says about Izza Génini:

“Izza has been a woman filmmaker pioneer at a time in an Arab land that such a feat was an impossible venture. I remember the impact that Trances had in 1981 when we programmed it on ‘Night Flight,’ as it became another standard for us to reach across the world to illuminate the extraordinary musical culture of Morocco. I am honored to have her series of unique music documentaries and look forward to bringing our Night Flight fans this in depth look at the varied forms of music from this Moroccan goldmine.”

Producer/director Izza Génini — the first Moroccan woman ever to direct a documentary film — was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1942, but she has been living in Paris, France, since 1960, moving with her family when she was just seventeen.

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She studied literature and language at the Sorbonne, and the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, and ultimately worked with the organization of film festivals, before becoming the head of Club 70 in Paris, a projection room and private club for filmmakers and films selection festivals.

In 1973, along with French filmmakers Louis Malle and Claude Nedjar, Génini helped form SOGEAV, a company for the promotion, sell and distribution of Moroccan films (now called OHRA), and soon was involved in the theatrical distribution of French films in Africa, and African films — including Reggae Sunsplash — abroad to other countries. Many of the films that OHRA have distributed have been music documentaries.

In 1978, Génini saw a concert in Paris by the Moroccan musical group Nass El Ghiwane — who play a mix of political folk and traditional Moroccan music — who she’d also heard on the soundtrack to the film Alyam Alyam.

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She would see them again in 1979, and by now she began thinking that the director Ahmed El Maanouni should film their concerts so that OHRA would be able to distribute the film (OHRA had distributed El Maanouni’s Alyam Alyam and also films by fellow Moroccan filmmaker and Maanouni’s friend, Souheil Ben Barka), which is what led to her producing Maanouni’s next feature film, 1981’s Transes (aka Trances).

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The project would change as the group Nass El Ghiwane — committed human-rights activists, singing lyrics generally preach the gospel of solidarity in the face of hardship and oppression — became more involved, wanting to go back to their own musical sources in Morocco, which meant the project would feature not just concert performances, but also documentary footage which would attempt to connect big contemporary issues (time, history, laughter, hope) with traditional themes.

Many years later, Transes was introduced at the Marrakesh Film Festival by producer/director Martin Scorsese, who extolled the film’s beauty and explained that he’d fallen into a trance, under its spell, after seeing it when it aired on late night TV in New York City.

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Omar Sayed of Nass El Ghiwane, Martin Scorsese and izza Génini, at a screening of the film Transes, directed by Ahmed El Maanouni (photo by M. Chamali)

In 2007, Scorsese wrote about choosing Transes as the first foreign-language film to launch the World Cinema Foundation, which he founded with the goal of preserving and promoting world cinema’s lesser-known treasures.

“It was in 1981 while I was editing a film, The King of Comedy. We worked at night so no one would call us on the telephone and I would have television on, and one channel in New York at the time, around 2 or 3 in the morning, was showing a film called Transes. It repeated all night and it repeated many nights. And it had commercials in it, but it didn’t matter. So I became passionate about this music that I heard and I saw also the way the film was made, the concert that was photographed and the effect of the music on the audience at the concert. I tracked down the music and eventually it became my inspiration for many of the designs and construction of my film The Last Temptation of Christ. […] And I think the group was singing damnation: their people, their beliefs, their sufferings and their prayers all came through their singing. And I think the film is beautifully made by Ahmed El Maanouni; it’s been an obsession of mine since 1981 and that is why we are inaugurating the Foundation with Transes.” –Martin Scorsese, May 2007

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Aïta (1988)

By 1987, Génini was also directing, her first film being Aïta, named after the song stylings of the Cheikhate (traveling musicians in Morroco). The film pays tribute to the the late Fatna Bent El Hocine, and a festival called the “Moussem of Moulay Abdellah Ameghar,” which is shuge pilgrimage site (more than 500,000 Moroccan visitors will travel there each year in order to pay homage to, in memory of, the Sufi saint of Doukalas, Abu Abdallah Mohammed Lmahasin Amghar (about 1060), founder of the Taifa Senhajia, the first example of a Sufi order in the Maghreb.

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Located between Volubilis and Meknes, the sanctuary of Moulay Idriss I is the destination of one of the most important pilgrimages in Morocco. Sufi brotherhoods and simple pilgrims march for eight days on the ecstatic rhythms in Louanges: Hymns of Praise (1988)

She would go on to direct more than nearly twenty films during her career — we’re featuring eight of them here on Night Flight Plus.

Many of her films examine the relationship between Jews and Arabs, tracing the histories of their cultures back to Judeo-Moroccan origins, and connecting Jewish and Muslim people back again through their common love of the music heritage of Morocco, regardless of gender, period or religion.

Her film Return to Oulad Moumen traces the journey of hrt oen family and her parents in particular (she was the last of nine children, but grew up in Casablanca, not Oulad Moumen, in Southern Morocco. She made the film to show that there was a younger generation who had no present-day link to their own Moroccan heritage.

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Mostly, though, her films are devoted to the discovery of the rich musical heritage of Morocco, which is so varied that she has always finds something new to share — and there’s still much she hasn’t been able to get around to doing a documentary on yet — showing us the depth of Morrocan culture’s diversity though sacred music, dance and trance music, festivals and fantasias.

It is a largely vocal tradition, she says in interviews, and an Andalusian tradition too, music inherited from the Arab-Muslim Spain when Jews and Muslims sang together. Each group would adapt the lyrics to basically the same musical accompaniment.

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Malhoune (1989)

Malhoune — also released in 1989 — is word that roughly translated into English means “dialect poetry sung” — and the undisputed master of the Malhoune is Hajj Houceine Toulati, who is featured in this film which delves deep in the ancient language and tradition of the genre itself.

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Rythmes de Marrakech (Rhythms of Marakech (1989)

In 1989, Rythmes de Marrakech documented performances by the drummers of deqqa in Marrakesh, led by the mythical “Baba,” women percussionists called Houara, the musicians of aita and mwazniya, violinists, dancers and more.

Cantiques brodés (Embroided Canticles) (1989)

1989 was also the year that Génini’s Cantiques brodés (English: Embroidered Canticles) was released, focusing on the rare meeting of two masters of Arab-Andalusian music in Paris: Rabbi Haim Louk and master Abdelsadek Chekara. The film talks about their common musical heritage, inherited from the Andalusian region of Morocco, and the “enterwined” embroidered tapestry (illustrating the tradition of “matrouz) that represents the historical relationship between Moroccan-born Jews and Muslims.

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Nuptials en Moyen-Atlas (1993)

1993’s Nuptials en Moyen-Atlas shows musicians from two tribes from the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, around Khénifra — the Zayane and Ichiker — who come together to perform at the wedding of Asli and Taslit, the groom and his bride, in a very mythical nuptial ceremony which features dancers representing both Heaven and Earth, heroes of the myth. The wedding is held in Berber tents.

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Gnaouas (1993)

Another film, Gnaousas, from 1993, documents the relationship between Black Africa and Morocco itself, a historical and musical story that tells of the people of Gnawa arriving in the fifteenth century as slaves, bringing with them the drum beats of Western Sudan and forming a brotherhood with indigenous peoples of Morocco which includes the practice of rituals of demonic possession and exorcism, with dancers falling into trances in ceremonies accompanied by the constant muffled beat of drums (called mlouks) and the rattle of metal castanets.

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Tambours Battant (With Drums Beating) (1999)

Tambours Battant(Drums Beating) from 1999 features Izza Génini’s personal recollections about her own childhood in Casablanca, and remembering the drums she heard beating that were a part of her mysterious world in her early life.

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Check out these eight films at World Music Library: Morocco — and be sure to look for more music documentary additions to our World Music Library — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.