Ahmed Boulane and Dana Schondelmeyer at the Cairo International Film Festival last November - Egypt Today/Hayssam Samir
BY SHERIF AWAD
Most think of Egypt as the traditional Hollywood of the East, but little do many know that Morocco was born as an international filmmaking destination just one year after the industry launched in Egypt, specifically in 1897, when Louis Lumière shot one of the earliest films there entitled The Moroccan Goatherd.
Since then, scores of international works have been filmed across Morocco, especially in the Ouarzazate area, the large-scale productions manned by small armies of local actors, location managers and assistant directors. Writer-director Ahmed Boulane was one of those Moroccans making the rounds on the acting scene. Nicknamed L’enfant terrible du cinéma marrocain (the unruly child of Moroccan cinema) for his rebellious character, he gradually but firmly walked the artistic line to become one of the most renowned filmmakers on the Arab and international scene.
Since early childhood, Boulane had always been in love with cinema. While at home Boulane tried to create a handmade camera to film his mother on Fridays. His father, who favored American films, took him to see classics like Moby Dick; in the 1960s Boulane lived in the city of Salé some 50 km from an American military base and WWII films were very popular with them at the time.
“I was a very rebellious pupil. So once I finished my primary school years, my father sent me to learn a handicraft,” remembers Boulane, who apprenticed as a tailor. “Five years later, I started to write and illustrate my own stories, designing them like a comic book with storyboards inside and a cover on the outside. When I reached the age of 12, while studying music at the Conservatoire of Rabat, I was cast in kiddie roles on Moroccan television, becoming the youngest actor to appear in TV serials at that time.”
But instead of making a career out of acting, Boulane felt that he needed to do something else. “As soon as I got my first passport I decided to fly to Rome in 1979. I was getting older and no cute boy roles were offered to me anymore. But I needed to work to make a living,” explains Boulane, who ventured into casting direction and location management on international films.
Around the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, Dana Schondelmeyer was beginning to explore her artistic side. The English teacher with degrees in social science and psychology recalls how “after meeting some Iranian students in Miami, I was fascinated to go and work in Tehran. However the Islamic Revolution broke out in 1979 which made me return to the US to finish my degree before moving to Spain then settling down in Morocco.”
It was the early 1980s and when they met in Morocco both Boulane and Dana were already married. “Boulane was noisy and liked to make bad jokes about Americans,” Dana — who was at that time married to Moroccan producer Ahmed Abounouo, head of Dune Films which supervised the production of countless international films across Morocco — recalls. “I was teaching in Morocco yet I was very critical of the French educational system which is locally adapted in its schools and universities. And so, bit by bit, I found myself involved in costume designs of the films that Dune was working on. It was maybe a fulfillment of a wish to become a cartoonist at a very early age. I started with two women working for me and some years later they become more than 40.”
Boulane and Dana’s first collaboration came before they became a couple. “I asked Dana to create the costumes for a harem scene in a French-Burkinabe production shooting in Morocco,” says Boulane. “The film was L’enfant Lion (The Lion Kid, 1993) by Patrick Grandperret. Four years later, Dana landed the costume design role on Kundun by Martin Scorsese. Several big international productions followed for her and Boulane.
In 2000, Boulane realized his feature debut Ali, Rabiaa and the Others (2000), the story of a young man named Ali (Younes Megri) who has been in prison for 20 years. After his release, he tries to reunite with his lost love Rabiaa (Hiam Abbass) and his group of friends.
“It was a nostalgic look back at my hippie years in Europe and Morocco,” says Boulane, who cast Dana in a bit role. The film was screened at the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Countries (AMFF) that same year, winning the Best Supporting Actor Award. Boulane’s next feature was The Satanic Angels. Released in 2007, it was based on the true story of the arrest of 14 young Moroccan hard rock musicians who were falsely accused of Satanism.
Dana contributed to the film as a costume designer conceptualizing the special outfits of the hard rockers. Before being invited as jury member of the Arab competition at the
38th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) last November, Boulane put the final touches on his latest feature, La Isla (The Island) which, again, dramatizes an important topic that crops up frequently in our daily headlines. The plot revolves around a Moroccan soldier called Ibrahim (Abdellah Ferkous) who is sent to a deserted island off the Mediterranean coast to monitor illegal immigrants. One day, he meets a Sub-
Saharan man by the name of Mamadou (Issa Ndiaye) who has been washed up on the beach. Soon, their unlikely friendship triggers a diplomatic and military crisis.
“I had a wonderful experience being jury member along with Egyptian star Ilham Shahin and Lebanese star Georges Khabbaz,” says Boulane, who brought Dana along for the festival.
“It was my first visit to Egypt after the screening of Ali, Rabiaa and the Others. I would have loved my film to have landed a bigger prize in Alexandria, given its critical and commercial success at the time. But I am fine with it right now.”