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Fez Summer ’55

An 11-year-old boy navigates the rooftops of a Moroccan city while insurgents plot the overthrow of French colonialists - dirty gem premieres in the Critics' Picks Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The old medina of Moroccan city Fez, a lattice of narrow streets where there is room for no more than pedestrian traffic. Or, to 11-year-old boy Kamal (Ayman Driwi), a network of rooftops and walkways allowing him to go anywhere. His freedom on the top of the city stands in sharp contrast to the country’s political reality: occupied by France, with their police patrolling the streets. The locals either keep their heads down or agitate for the return of their exiled ruler, Sultan Mohammed V.

The story is very much told from Kamal’s point-of-view. He is at once possessed of a child’s enthusiasm for life and, from his rooftop vantage point, able to see things not seen by most adults. Yet, he is hampered by his immaturity and lack of understanding of what’s really going on. Moreover, he is just starting to develop an interest in girls, and is most taken with his much older teenage neighbour Aicha (Oumaïma Barid).

While she is still young and possessed of that sense of optimism for the future that young people have before the realities of life grind it out of them, the female character has a far stronger grasp of the ramifications of the political situation than the male, and indeed is involved with the city’s underground network of freedom fighters. Into which the young boy is drawn, partly because of his rooftop navigation abilities. There are also glimpses of networks designed for surreptitiously getting guns or written information from a to b, with Aicha lifting up a potted plant, earth, roots and all, to deposit whatever she’s delivering in the pot underneath for collection by someone else later.

The film opens on a woman (Lalla Hachoum) in the street with cats sitting upon her person, who isn’t hassled by the police by virtue of being a woman. She crops up again later on as a mourner for a dead local killed in the insurgence. Such background characters are as important here as the city itself, with Kamal’s mother Zohra (from The Blue Caftan, Maryam Touzani, 2022) and father Ali (Mohamed Naimane who has a minor role in The Blue Caftan) – who runs a modest footwear store – doing their best not to be noticed, his mother in particular worrying when he’s not back home by the expected time. There are lighter family moments too – when Kamal comes back from his first trip to the cinema bearing tales of men and women dancing together in well-to-do clubs on the screen, his mother’s eyes light up with thoughts of faraway, romantic lifestyles beyond her experience, and the pair of them dance together on their flat rooftop.

Kamal’s experience of watching the film that inspires this life-affirming dance is preceded by a more troubling showing of a reel of Pathé News, all worrying propaganda about what the French forces are doing in order to quell the subversive Moroccans, so blatant in its anti-Moroccan bias that Aisha takes him out of the auditorium before it finishes, bringing him back in later to see the main feature.

Propaganda aside, the local cinema provides shelter from the police clashing with pro-Morocco protestors in the narrow streets or secret insurgent meetings taking place behind closed doors, sometimes in secure courtyards beneath criss-cross lattice structures through which they can be observed and overheard by Kamal, who finds himself in the strange position of knowing what’s going on because he sees and hears it, but not really knowing because he’s too young to understand, say, the brutal realities of torture.

Aicha is much closer to all that though, with a stronger grasp of what it means, firstly when someone she knows has either thrown herself or been thrown out of a high window following a session of torture by the French, and secondly when her boyfriend Youssef (Mohamed Atef) – a member of the resistance – is captured, and the threat of torture looms closer to home.

At one point, when the French cops are looking for her, Aicha, with Kamal in tow, evade them by gaining access to a kindly old woman’s courtyard, suggesting that in such pursuits, the locals are constantly admitting insurgent-sympathetic people into many such off-street areas. Free-spirited loner Kamal knows the rooftops and the streets, but is less familiar with these doorways and the people behind them. Yet, he’s beginning to learn of them.

The film thus plays out as a fascinating picture of a city in a country on the verge of independence from its occupiers, with its rooftops, alleyways and private courtyards assuming great significance because of the specific urban layout. If anything, it’s rendered still more compelling for being seen through the eyes of a child who doesn’t always fully understand what’s going on and the true significance of events unfolding around him.

It’s put together on quite a small budget, as you can tell from the end sequence when crowds welcome Mohammed V at the airport a few months after the events in the main body of the film. Close-ups of the crowd are augmented by obvious newsreel footage featuring Moroccan citizens in their thousands. But because most of the film is set in narrow streets which can’t hold more than a few people, for most of the running length, such budgetary limitations aren’t an issue at all.

Fez Summer ’55 just premiered at the Critics’ Picks Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Jeremy Clarke - 17-11-2023

Jeremy Clarke has been writing about movies in various UK print publications since the late 1980s as well as online in recent years. He’s excited by movies which provoke audiences, upset convent...

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