Occupying the Realm of the Imagination

In 2003 the Cinematheque de Tanger was established when a group of artists and film professionals led by Yto Barrada formed a non-profit association to take over the lease of the faltering Cinema Rif, which was established in 1938 and is situated on the Grand Sacco, the main plaza of Tangier.1

After two years of fundraising and two more of construction, the Cinematheque de Tanger opened in 2007 as North Africa’s first artist-run cinema and cultural center, and began showing an ambitious program of contemporary and classic films. Subsequently, they launched a high-profile series of workshops and master classes, which put world-renowned presenters in touch with local audiences, including children, women’s groups, student filmmakers, and non-profit organizations. The Cinematheque has welcomed an audience of tens of thousands from all walks of life, screening some three-hundred films from more than twenty countries, and thus realizing its primary goal: to bring the people of Tangier back into the movies. At the heart of any cinema or cultural center is a film archive and the Cinematheque has presented selections from its archive of documentaries, Arab cinema, and related films from home and abroad.

(MM) The Cinematheque project takes up a considerable amount of space and time in your work as an artist, and ultimately it cannot be separated from it. Putting the Tangier cinema, its history and its operation first, is now both an artistic and political choice because it is not a humanitarian endeavor, unlike other situations that could be classified as such. What I mean is that the cinema is not essential, unlike Dama for example, the association run by your mother, with whom you have collaborated.2 Dama is a project that deals with problems of survival. The Cinematheque is rather more symbolic in its scope, which constructs a situation in the long term.

(YB) First of all, the Cinematheque does sometimes take priority over my work, but that is something that cannot be helped. Between my work as an artist, which describes and criticizes the changes we are experiencing, and the constant supervision and concessions are made that are necessary for the survival of the Cinematheque, there is an occasional contradiction. Secondly, Dama was founded on the basis of a model, whereas the Cinematheque is a group project that has developed out of the recent situation: a different generation from my mother’s actually. To transform life in Tangier, we felt that people needed to be transformed. What is more, urban Morocco has lost its theaters, its storytellers. Cinema is a unifying medium: it carries people away, both literally and metaphorically. It is a tool for reflection· itis an instrument of collective hypnosis … Cinema is illusionist and fusional: it promotes ways of seeing things and encourages people to dream. At first sight, it is not an instrument of rationalization; it is an instrument for inhabiting the realms of the imagination and desire which manages to reach out to a considerable number of people.

(MM) Personal emancipation and projecting oneself in a living, breathing world begins with access to the realm of imagination and its critical articulation with community life. If the realms of the imagination, which have been and will continue to be inhabited-because the realm of imagination is simply crying out to be invaded in both the positive and negative sense of the term—are not cultivated and confronted by a certain degree of diversity, by forms of complexity, their emancipation is very improbable.

(YB) Tangier is a city where people are stuck, they cannot leave, and the border of Europe is closed to them. The inaccessible West becomes an idealized universe: movie, 1V, and pirate DVD images also invade that space. Creating a cinema and cultural center, that is to say, a place for collective projection linked to the history of cinema, and is therefore a notion of history; it is about giving viewers the chance to simultaneously manifest and put into perspective the way they project themselves, to put things simply. To a large extent, we are still colonized in that we are living with models from the past such as those set forth by Hubert Lyautey3; schools are still named after him. It is good to take that into account instead of disregarding it: our desire is still occupied by those models, too.

(MM) Desire is a true force as it produces something shared and representative. The strategic point is the intersection between desire and need, a point where capitalism, for example, has led to considerable confusion. By untangling the strands of that confusion, we are able to change the imposed models and, by doing so, change the ways of day-to-day living.

(YB) At this moment in time, it is indeed about being open to collective and subjective relationships, something that has become apparent in Arab countries in recent months. The Cinematheque is not essential, but it allows people to revisit and access sources of culture as it is today, to make it their own, and to try and have it freely available to them. There are these archives, pieces from the past made by others that we view from the perspective of the present day. They situate us and tell us where we come from, mostly. In them we find the shape of the city and we can observe the speed of the changes it has under· gone—is this the modernity we expected, the one we want now? The documentaries that we propose and have been made in the work· shops, all of which we regularly present, allow things to settle on the territory, on the stratifications of recent history.

(MM) The question that arises now is: What economic model? The world is governed by the economy and not by politics. You try to seek grants and that essentially goes back to the French model. The latter has been marked in recent years by the association between culture and tools such as communication, human management, and design, openly aimed at defusing conflicts (and at controlling the roles played by each individual). Aren’t you concerned with the effects that these tools might have? They often give rise to short-lived events and the praise of èvènementiel, a considerable number of economic propaganda operations and, all in all, everyone spends their time trying to find money … Why, then, conform to a model that is on its last legs?

(YB) But we are already there! We have to use these tools and they take up a lot of our time: evaluation, feasibility conditions … things like this that have to appear in the draft of the grant applications. Work is a scenario of violence and power; it is a context of conflicting interests, so everyone tries to smooth over these differences and focus on good results. The scale of our work is enormous. Fortunately, there is a constant presence of people, audiences, their requests, and their reactions and that is what makes us take our time to consider the content for true periods of experimentation. The driving force of the Cinematheque is the people that come to it. But we are weighed down by the sheer volume of proposals that we cannot respond to due to a lack of time and resources. We have a very small team and need to pay people. The Cinematheque project—and the day-to-day life that it has managed to create around it, like many other places around the world — is still a fragile pilot initiative. All I ask myself is why, like so many other of the region’s indispensable organizations, is it so difficult to do what we do? We are trying to find a balance between the French style welfare state — now nowhere to be seen — and the realm of American private sponsorship, where associations are legions that have their own culture of marketing and ways of attracting the public and sponsors. Here, and in other Arab cities, we’re trying to come up with new ideas and to interest our own sponsors because we have to take the aftermath of September 11 into account. We are very fortunate to have enjoyed ten years of a certain vague interest (though often it was to understand the enemy, to civilize…) and grants, which are going to run out but we are now thinking about other ways to survive. (China, Latin America, and Eastern European countries are on the waiting list and all of them have very dynamic art scenes.)

(MM) Returning to the economic issue, the general tendency of globalization is to save on personnel costs and that unfortunately means that you can pay very little, and to automate actions. The industrialization of culture might mean, for example, that a project should be able to be replicated, as you said.

(YB) Replication is an important evaluation criterion for those in charge of allocating European funds. The language of Euro-Mediterranean grant applications is a very interesting genre worth studying because of the active distortion that is fosters: a very good application may get a bad score and be rejected (relevance to the target audience: OK; replication: no). A very bad application may be effective if it is able to encompass grant jargon in just the right way.
Associations are increasingly using the services of professionals specializing in assembling applications of this type. We spend too much time pandering to the strategies of administrative management, impersonality and mechanization and — above all — red tape and paternalism. Professionalization may be the answer. For example, the Arab Image Foundation was created by artists to unearth and protect a heritage its existence was suspected and to draw on it;4 but when you are also a practicing artist, the growth of a project such as the aforementioned becomes very arduous. One day, the Cinematheque will need to find a rational mode of operation that is minimally reliant on grant funding, welcoming experimental projects, and endorsing their oddity and ability to change things.

(MM) Do the artists’ projects have a specific focus?

(YB) Artists start projects such as the Arab Image Foundation and the Cinematheque to fill a local gap. These projects could almost be considered personal since they are not just alternatives to state or corporate initiatives. Instead of competing with offerings that already exist, we thought about what was missing or lacking. We had to fill a gap and today we are sizing up the extent of it. There are thousands of things to do and we really hope that initiatives other than our own will get off the ground. That is where the difficulty of establishing the form they should take lies, and paradoxically that is a good sign: our work is never done, we still need to come up with new ideas.

1 The Cinematheque de Tanger is supported by the Prince Claus Fund, Agence pour la Promotion et le Developpement du Nord (APDN), Fonds de Dotation de la Fondation Agnes b., Foundation for the Future, Anna Lindh Foundation, Fondation Tamaas, and the Luma Foundation.
More information in the book, edited by Yto Barrada and Omar Herrada, Album: The Cinematheque de Tangier, 2012. Album is a short-illustrated history of film in Tangier, and of Tangier in film, told through the archives and stories of the Cinematheque de Tanger. With texts by Philippe Azoury, Yto Barrada, Omar Herrada, Ahmed Boughaba, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Carles Guerra, Bouchra Khalili, and Luc Sante.
2 Darnamaroc is a Tangier-based association dedicated to children and women at risk.
3 Marshall Hubert Lyautey was the first Resident-General of the French protectorate over Morocco in 1912, and as such has left a long-lasting legacy in the country’s organization.
4 The Arab Image Foundation (AIF) is a non-profit organization established in 1997 in Beirut. The foundation’s mission is to collect, preserve, and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diasporas. Please visit their website for further information.