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Génini’s Documentaries

by Stefanie Van de Peer


Génini’s Documentaries

Génini dismisses objectivity in documentary. She emphasises her entirely subjective approach by inserting herself into the narrative. She acknowledges her outsider status and exploits her transnational identity within Morocco. Even the purely informative sequences in the films are built on the love she feels for music and her conviction of its relevance for all subjects in the films. She states in several interviews that her interest in music and national heritage stem from an emotional reconnection with her own past. Music, film and Morocco are inseparable since the making of Transes. With Aita, for example, it has become clear that through her encounter with Morocco, and with the music of Morocco in particular, she renewed her personal connection to the country and its heritage. She told me:

The inspiration that led to my production and directing of the series Maroc, Body and Soul, is the result of a long process that was instigated in March 1973, when I had returned to Morocco after 13 years of absence. From then on, I really got to know my country of origin, via its culture, its music, its language, its nature, etc. Working in the film world in Paris, I attached myself to the cinema of Morocco, pro- ducing and distributing Moroccan films. At the same time, I got to know a musical treasure. I particularly liked Fatna Bent El Hocine, whom I discovered at Essaouira. She was the one to inspire me to make my first film; I had to do it in order to safeguard her talent for the future. (pers. correspondence, 2011a)

Génini’s subjective approach is most explicit in Retrouver Oulad Moumen 1 . It is a subjective exploration of the migration patterns of her own family: a Jewish-Moroccan family dispersed throughout the world, from Marrakesh to Casablanca, to Boucheron (now El Ghara) and eventually to Paris in France. Some continued their travels to the United States, Mexico and Martinique. From the first few minutes of the film, Génini puts herself centrally in the frame. A slow-motion sequence shows a group of people getting ready to have their group picture taken. They are celebrating Génini’s own birthday, the occasion she chose to bring her extended family back to their place of origin: Oulad Moumen. This photographic aspect of the first few sequences continues throughout the film: the source material she uses for an illustration of history is made up of photographs (sepia or black and white) and archival footage, home videos and old family pictures.

The moment Génini decides to return to Oulad Moumen for the first time, she is alone, travelling through Morocco as a tourist. It is her first time in Morocco since she left when she was eighteen years old. On her journey through the country, she meets people in the places to which they had emigrated, who remember her family and with whom she re-establishes an immediate intimate bond. Génini often enters the frame and gets close to family members and old friends. She joins in the family routines when people are singing, talking, eating. The whole film has a very intimate feel, and the subjective approach adds a familiarity to her exploration of Morocco. It shows her emotional, personal reconnection to be intimately entwined with heritage, migration and art, in particular music.

The exchanges between music traditions, she reveals, also entail an exchange between different ethnicities. The wider perspective of the films is not always directly visible. For Génini it is a nostalgic look into the past that inspires her to make creative documentaries. Nevertheless, a closer look at some of the topics and subjects she approaches do reveal a wider political point of view and a critical eye, if one looks further and listens better, a subtle, enfolded central concern with Moroccan women and minorities is revealed, just as Patricia Pisters sees it in more recent women’s films (2007). Aita questions the status of itinerant women singers; Retrouver Oulad Moumen seemingly avoids the questions or answers about emigration, but they are implied precisely because of the personal bond between the family and the spectator; and La Nûba d’Or et de Lumière digs deeper into the performances of the women singers and love poetry of an ancient and well-respected art form. The film-maker’s personal relationship with women, artists and a multicultural Morocco leads to ambiguous dissident questions, and a trust in the intellectual abilities and unfolding power of the spectator will lead to possible answers through really ‘seeing’ and listening. The ostensible absence of conflict or tension in her films is not only a political choice but also an aesthetic statement. While she avoids the censor and ensures investment, her style also reveals multiple enfolded layers to the Morocco she represents. Her own transnational knowledge is reflected in this: being an insider and outsider, she can see and reveal that Morocco is a diverse nation. Her transnationality enables her to accept the various individual aspects of the country. Instead of unity, then, she advocates transnationality, heterogeneity and diversity, like a mosaic that is only truly understood when observed from a relative distance.

In Génini’s films, music represents Morocco, and it takes on such an important role that it becomes a character in its own right. She loves music and wants to represent a subaltern type of music that does not, in her view, get the attention it deserves. She told me:

Making these films, I became aware at which point music films are difficult to edit and at which point they remain subjective. The technical difficulty of cutting in the music, the notions of time, rhythm and tempo are personal and at the same time they need to make sense to the spectator. It is a subtle balance to find between listening and seeing. For me, when speaking about music, what is essential to clarify is the pleasure one experiences. (pers. correspondence, 2011a)

The music not only shapes the structure of the film, it is also the subject that needs to be listened to and seen. She films music and performances in their natural settings, bringing the camera into the situation instead of bringing the situation to the camera. Music in these films represents a spirit of freedom and tolerance. To capture music visually, she shows performances and musicians practising. In addition, she captures audiences and visualises their experience. Génini’s documentaries therefore visualise sound. On the reason why she chose to make music documentaries, she comments:

Music constitutes a red thread throughout my career. The first feature-length film I produced (Transes) was musical. When I became a director myself, I was immediately attracted to making a film about women singers, the Cheikhats . . . The music of Morocco is so rich and diverse that I have never stopped being surprised and I keep discovering: I am always ready to crack a new genre or a new voice. (Jezequel, 2006)

As music ethnologist Deborah Kapchan acknowledges, music is an intercultural, transnational exchange that holds the promise of universal understanding. But even ‘a promise is a “performative”: it enacts rather than refers and by its very action accomplishes its goal, which is to create an intersubjective contract that is often affective and implicit rather than acknowledged and juridical’ (Kapchan, 2008: 470). As a non-verbal means of communication it relies on the solidarity raised by sounds and the common experience of them. It represents the hope that there is a common human experience that can comprehend the other across borders and cultures, and the ‘self-selecting festival audience embraces the promise’ (Kapchan, 2008: 470). This intersubjective belief in the language of music holds true for Génini’s emotional connection to it, and her very subjective approach. The belief in the power of music reflects another, more contemporary hope for transnationalism: that cultural diversity is an urgent theme in a world in which the rise of fundamentalism is so obvious.

An attempt is made to give new life to heritage through the testimony of the protagonists. These protagonists are usually discovered at yearly festivals in Morocco, where she films and interviews them. Kapchan illustrates that Morocco is a country of festivals. She argues that festivals create exceptional circumstances, where the willingness to perform and be heard as well as to perceive (‘see’) and listen is heightened and out of the ordinary: ‘the Moroccan monarchy has many stakes in the spate of yearly festivals. They construct a public discourse of neoliberalism and engage producers in the active creation of Moroccan culture as a product of national and international consumption’ (Kapchan, 2008: 471). That the government has high stakes in these festivals does not mean they are not also used for awareness-raising through music and gatherings. This potential for music and festivals to be politically challenging as well as entertaining is nothing new. Génini highlights the wealth of intercultural exchange and its importance for the development of the Arab world.

Excerpt taken from Negotiating Dissidence: The Pioneering Women of Arab Documentary by Stefanie Van de Peer, published by Edinburgh University Press, 2017.


  • Kapchan, D. A. (2008), ‘The Promise of Sonic Translation: Performing the Festive Sacred in Morocco’, American Anthropologist, 110(4): 467–83.
  • Jezequel, Y. (2006), ‘Au Coeur des Traditions musicales Marocaines’, Film Fest Amiens, available online at: et-ames-&lang=fr.
  • Van de Peer, S. (2011a), Personal correspondence with Izza Génini, Paris, throughout February.
  • Van de Peer, S. (2014b), ‘A Moroccan Homecoming: The Fabulation of Family and Home in Izza Génini’s Retrouver Oulad Moumen’, in R. Prime (ed.), Cinematic Homecomings. Exile and Return in Transnational Cinema (New York: Bloomsbury), pp. 269–86.
  1. I have written in more detail about Retrouver Oulad Moumen elsewhere, see Van de Peer (2014b).