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Animation in the Maghreb

Philippe Moins reports about his trip to Morocco for the Mekn Festanim, finding animation from the Maghreb.

The heart of Maghrebs Meknès Festanim lies in its programming for children, who arent exposed to quality animation. The festival screened Madagascar and Corpse Bride for them. All images courtesy of Meknès Fest

The heart of Maghrebs Meknès Festanim lies in its programming for children, who arent exposed to quality animation. The festival screened Madagascar and Corpse Bride for them. All images courtesy of Meknès Fest

Meknès, an imperial city in the heart of Morocco, with its ramparts, Medina, royal stables and olive oil, which are famous throughout the country.

At first sight, there is nothing to indicate that an annual animation festival has been held here for the last four years.

The only one of its kind in the whole of Africa, the Meknès Festanim is now in its fourth edition. It took place last May, with director Isao Takahata as guest of honor.

Organized by the Institut français de Meknès, Festanim is neither a competition nor a market; the festival puts a lot of emphasis on retrospectives, without neglecting current production. This year, for example, one could see both Egyptian films and offerings from a group of young VJs from Annecy.

Congolese director Jean Michel Kibushi managed a childrens workshop at The French Institute.

Congolese director Jean Michel Kibushi managed a childrens workshop at The French Institute.

The heart of the festival undoubtedly lies in its programming for children. The vast majority of them are unused to cinema-going and only know animation through television. Satellite antennae are now part of the landscape, like everywhere else, with Egyptian and Bollywood soap opera series leading the rating.

An aging cinema in the Medina, packed with excited kids, hosted a screening of Madagascar, while open-air screenings in the gardens of the French Institute were also a big success with the local public, who had come to see Tim Burtons Corpse Bride among other films. Every film from the west is a cultural shock in a country where tradition and religion dominate life.

Watching the troubles of the timid Victor Van Dort and his fiendish partner, with the minarets of the Medina in the background is an unforgettable experience.

The Prix Aïcha was given to a local animation company that plans to partner with Festanim to jumpstart year-round animation training in the city.

The Prix Aïcha was given to a local animation company that plans to partner with Festanim to jumpstart year-round animation training in the city.

The young people who flocked to the screenings are astonishingly serious-minded and avid for knowledge. , The professional guests, some of whom, naturally, were French, but also included IsaoTakahata from Japan, Jean Michel Kibushi from the Congo, the Luxemburg filmmaker Thierry Schiel, who were inundated with questions. Also present was the indefatigable Bruno Edera, who had come to participate in a round table about African animation. David Encinas, a Frenchman who has worked at Studio Ghibli, led an introductory workshop on storyboarding, which by all accounts was highly appreciated.

Most of the young Moroccans came from the National Film School, or fine arts colleges. Some who had come from Casablanca, Tetouan and Rabat had brought folders of magnificent drawings, but most of them were unaware of even the rudiments of animation, its art and its history. They came to see, to pick up information and hope one day to find work in this field, even if there is no real animation studio in Morocco. At most, there are some production companies who include 2D and 3D in the services they offer; and make the occasional animated commercial.

It was a first appearance in Africa for the Japanese director Isao Takahata (right), a guest of honor at the festival.

It was a first appearance in Africa for the Japanese director Isao Takahata (right), a guest of honor at the festival.

Here, as in Algeria and many other developing countries, the appearance then democratization of computers has been experienced as a godsend, a heaven-sent opportunity to get up to scratch in a way that would never have been possible with traditional animation. A program of films from the Algerian school, introduced at Meknès by Mahmoud Meziani, shows the extent to which the students have mastered the basics of CGI, including the tics peculiar to the medium. There is still a fair way to go however, before a local success will be produced.

The Meknès Festanim does not intend to play a purely cultural role, even though the latter is necessary, it also intends to participate in a dynamic, pro-active process. Mohamed Beyoud, the festivals artistic director has big ambitions for his festival and for his city. Seeing the enthusiasm of his partners as well as that of the participants, one feels that he is no longer preaching in the desert. But the task is immense and he knows it.

Some days later, a comics festival, organized by the National School of Fine Arts in Tetouan a few hundred kilometers north of Meknès, took place. One saw some of the same students who had been at Meknès and, there too, the issue of animation was on the agenda. The directors of the school are thinking of creating an animation workshop within the school.

For the moment, the Maghreb still has little to offer in terms of audio-visual material to a population with an incredibly high percentage of young people. The real challenges lie elsewhere: literacy, poverty, public health, housing. In this context, talking about animation films sometimes feels a little surreal. However, as is the case everywhere else, young people are turning to this domain with enormous enthusiasm and, as elsewhere, dream of making films. The dream may well seem very hard to realize, but some are working hard to make it happen.

Philippe Moins is writer and teacher in Belgium, and also co-director of the Brussels Animation Festival ANIMA.

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