Rabat – Moroccan movie director Nabil Ayouch seems to have an undeniable knack for controversy. His latest movie, “Razzia,” has been chosen to compete as Morocco’s entry in the pre-selections for Best Foreign Film at the 2018 Oscars.
Soon after the announcement was made, however, many raised accusations that the film had been chosen out of nepotism and by a purposeful circumvention of the competition’s rules. Morocco World News reconstituted the facts.
On September 16, the Moroccan Cinematographic Center (CCM) announced it nominated an “independent committee” which selected Ayouch’s kaleidoscopic social drama “Razzia” to compete in the foreign-language category of the 2018 Academy Awards. The CCM specified that this selection was made “in accordance with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (OSCARS).”
One day later however, “Razzia” would again make the headlines. Far from lauding the movie’s selection for such prestigious award, many media outlets would scream scandal, throwing accusations of foul play and conflict of interests.
Law and order
It all started with an article published on Arabic speaking news website Ihata, accusing Ayouch to have circumvented the Award Academy’s rules and regulation, and the CCM committee of favoritism and conflict of interests.
Indeed, one look at the Oscars rules and regulations terms was enough to raise many questions.
According to Rule Thirteen of the Special Rules for the Foreign Language Award, any film nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Award must fulfill a number of conditions:
When it comes to eligibility, the movie must be first publicly exhibited for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theater for the profit of the producer and exhibitor.
The film also must be advertised and exploited during its theatrical release, the commercial screening for one week in a cinema, in a manner considered normal and customary to theatrical feature distribution practices.
As for the selection, the submitting country must submit to the Academy proof of advertising for the film’s theatrical release.
To date, no national screening date for “Razzia” was announced, and no trailer, teaser, or official communique has been released. Nor was a press campaign conducted to promote the release of the movie in national movie theaters.
The only release dates publically available for “Razzia” are one-time screenings. The Internet Movie Database’s listing for the film mentions a World Premiere release at Toronto’s International Film Festival in Canada on September 11, and another screening in the United Kingdom at London Film Festival on October 5.
However, the committee insists that “Razzia” has already made an official commercial release in Morocco. A member of the CCM committee contacted by MWN who chose to stay unnamed affirmed that Razzia made its official release at the Colisée movie theater in Marrakesh, which the director Ayouch himself confirmed.
“Razzia was screened in Marrakesh for a first projection back in August for a whole week. The posters were up for much longer, but no one paid much attention to them,” Ayouch told Morocco World News.
But when MWN contacted the Colisée movie theater, the manager who chose to stay unnamed said that “Razzia” had been released on August 26 and was screened only until August 29. He would not disclose the number of tickets sold.
The news of this presumed projection are nowhere to be found, including on “Razzia’s” active official Facebook page, which lists all of the aforementioned international screenings of the film.
“You can even check with the CCM for [Razzia’s] commercial visa, release date and the number of tickets sold,” added the committee member.
The CCM and its president Sarim Fassi El Fihri did not respond to MWN’s request for these documents or for further comments.
If Razzia was in fact nationally released for commercial purposes, why then no one heard about it, no one have seen it, and there is no public proof to sustain such claim?
According to the manager of Cinema la Renaissance in Rabat, the screening procedure that seems to have taken place with “Razzia” is not common practice.
“In accordance with the normal and customary norms [for] theatrical feature distribution practices, a movie making its first national release does not come out in one movie theater in the whole country, without even an officially announced screening date,” he told MWN, noting that these are the norms implemented by the CCM’s regulations.
For Bilal Marmid, journalist and cinema expert, it is likely that “Razzia” was in fact projected in Colisee for a premiere or technical screening, in order to nominally meet the Oscars criteria. “It is very easy to package a technical screening as a commercial one,” he explained.
However, whatever proof the CCM committee might have submitted to the Academy to testify the commercial screening or the theatrical release advertisement of the movie was not made public. And no further information or documents were publicly provided by the CCM or the committee, added the journalist.
Still, the CCM committee remained adamant that the nomination was legitimate. “Of course the CCM will not hand the Oscars Academy falsified documents!” said one of the juries who chose to stay unnamed, stressing that “Razzia” fulfilled all the required terms, “otherwise it would have not been named.”
“Questioning the credibility of the CCM on such matter is scandalous, and would only hurt Morocco’s image internationally,” added the source.
Ayouch appeared unfazed by the ongoing debate, which he described as futile and sterile. “This is a complete waste of everyone’s time,” he said.
“I can assure to you that the selection respected all the Academy Award’s recommendations,” affirmed Ayouch, adding in a calm tone that “no one would gamble with such things.”
The acclaimed director suggested that it was usual practice to take advantage of technicalities in the competition rules. “The same debate is happening in Egypt around their selected movie ‘Sheikh Jackson.’ The movie still did not make its official commercial release when it was selected, so the producers decided to advance the release date to conform with the Oscars recommendations.”
Recommendations, or binding regulations? MWN attempted to contact the Oscars to clear up the legal terminology, but the organization was unavailable for comment.
A Matter of Ethics
But while suspicions of a legal breach may fly wild, is an ethical issue still at hand? While the CCM’s jury describes itself as an “independent committee,” a number of close connections between its members and Ayouch raise the possibilities of serious conflicts of interest.
Six out of the seven jury members have direct personal and professional links with Ayouch, starting with its chairman, writer and painter Mahi Binebine, whose daughter Dounia Binebine stars in “Razzia,” and whose books have been adapted to the big screen by Ayouch himself.
Further Mounia Layadi, the owner of Colisée, is also the distributor of “Razzia.” Zakia Tahiri, another member of the jury, directed one of the Ayouch’s sitcoms through “Ali n ‘Productions,” Ayouch’s production company. The director and actress Samia Akariou, also a judge on the commission, had two seasons of her series “Sir Al Marjane” produced by Ayouch’s production company.
Ayouch rejected any possibility of nepotism. For the director, describing the situation as a conflict of interest would constitute a “big offense to the respectable institution that is the CCM, as well as the members of the jury that are well known for their professionalism and honesty.”
The director doesn’t see any conflict of interests in the selection of his movie “since the jury was chosen three months prior ‘Razzia’s’ application.”
“There were a total of ten films, and there was a secret vote, and their choice was Razzia,” replied Ayouch.
“Besides, the Moroccan audiovisual industry is a very small one,” adds Ayouch. “It is very hard, if not impossible to find people in this industry who have no personal or professional links with each other.”
In response, Marmid questioned whether a closed committee should make the nomination decision at all: “why chose a jury in the first place?” Especially if it’s one composed of friends and acquaintances? Why not let the CCM select the movie and avoid such allegations?
“The CCM must respect the criteria of the Academy of the Oscars,” Ayouch said in responce.
Still, Marmid insists that the issue here is not specifically that “Razzia” was selected. “Ayouch had proven his talent as a director more than once,” said the journalist. Instead, the problem lies in the selection process itself.
“It’s a matter of principle. These kind of practices should not happen anymore,” said Marmid.