Marrakech, Morocco – Tucked amid a myriad of busy bars and nightclubs in central Gueliz, the hip downtown quarter of Marrakech, the historic Cinema Le Petit Palace lies in shambles.
Next to its shuttered gates is a haunting mural depicting a long line of people, silhouettes from the past, waiting to buy their tickets.
“I was a child the first time I went to Cinema Palace [in the 1970s],” local cinephile Brahim Ikbi tells Al Jazeera, with an air of nostalgia.
“I was so passionate about going to movies that I used to absent myself from school. I always avoided Fridays and Sundays – those were the days the artisans didn’t work, so cinemas were overcrowded … [Cinema culture] was a big deal. It had its rituals; we used to shave and wear our best clothes.”
In those days, film programmes were hung up on the city walls, and cine-clubs had tens of thousands of members, even in the poorest neighbourhoods. At its peak in 1980, there were more than 240 theatres in Morocco. During that period, more than 42 million tickets were bought annually, and even more were sold under the table to avoid taxes. Theatres were omnipresent, from big cities like Casablanca to small mountain towns like Ouezzane or Midelt.
Today, however, that world is gone. With just 29 theatres still in operation and film caravans no longer serving rural areas, Morocco’s cinema culture has all but disappeared.
Cinema Le Petit Palace, an art deco building constructed during Morocco’s colonial period, has suffered at least one attempt at complete destruction by a real estate company. The attempt was stopped by activists with the group Save Cinemas in Morocco, which lobbies for the restoration of the country’s movie theatres.
According to a 2007 study mandated by the Centre Cinematographique Marocain (CCM), the state body that controls Morocco’s film industry, between 1994 and 2005, cinema attendance declined by 77 percent, ticket receipts by 42 percent, screenings by 27 percent and active distributors by 56 percent. The proliferation of satellite television and pirated DVDs contributed to this decline, the study found.
Lamyaa Achaary, a cinephile and sociology student in Rabat, says that her generation has become less interested in seeing films in a theatre.
“In a context of hyper-consumption, people have less time to see films. There’s so much access to films and series’ online,” she tells Al Jazeera. “Cinemas need to consider other forms, so they don’t disappear forever. The only theatres that have some quality are too expensive – barely even accessible to the middle class. It’s easier to just go on torrent and download it.”
Although the CCM allocates some funds for the renovation of old cinemas, most of that money has gone to theatres in downtown and tourist areas. Theatres in working-class areas, small cities and towns have failed to benefit from the aid.
“There is no access to culture for the poor,” Achaary says.
With increasing social inequality and decreased purchasing power, the decline of cinemas in Morocco has mirrored the country’s increasingly neo-liberal economic policies.
At the height of the theatre epoch, the Moroccan state placed a high value on “national industries,” including film, prescribing $1.8m ($5.7m in today’s dollars) to support and preserve theatres.
But after the state took on its first loan from the World Bank, and following the historic bread riots of the early 1980s, that fund was reduced dramatically, to $457,000 ($1.5m in today’s dollars). As theatres became increasingly vulnerable through the 1990s, the state maintained a high taxation rate on movie tickets. A rate of 25 percent was imposed when film was still a key sector, but taxes remained high despite the industry’s decline, says Tarik Mounim, the founder of Save Cinemas in Morocco.
“I am for completely abolishing taxes on cinemas,” he tells Al Jazeera. “If we want to encourage a sector, we start by removing or reducing taxes.”
The CCM has continued to support film production, allotting more than $7m to filmmakers last year, but it has left the associated infrastructure to crumble, observers say.
“CCM politics considers theatres to be ancient history,” Mounim laments.
The state has also been criticised for putting too many political constraints on film production and exhibition, both through censorship and a complex bureaucratic approval process to produce and exhibit films. For one of Morocco’s pioneering filmmakers, Mohamed Abderahman Tazi, the government seeks to limit the presence of cinema in part due to “a fear of political films”.
“Cinema is not a priority for this government,” he tells Al Jazeera. “This is despite the fact that cinema is a pillar of culture.”
The Moroccan government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.
In the 1970s and 80s, Moroccan cine-clubs played a major role in film education. However, as they were closely linked to leftist opposition groups at the time, cine-clubs began to recede alongside these political organisations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Cine-clubs had a big importance to the average viewer. They allowed them to be able to read the film,” Tazi says.
Today, cine-clubs have almost disappeared, and many public universities and schools do not offer film studies programmes. Although some offer courses in film production, they remain largely focused on the technical aspects of the craft.
A good first step, Tazi says, would be to bring back a programme about cinema on television to “give people an idea of the importance of certain films”.
“Cinema is a sector for education, for entertainment, but something for everyone,” Mounim adds. “A cinema is strong when the audience makes it strong. Right now, it’s not the public that makes films strong – it’s festivals.”