‘Before the Dying of the Light’ Review: Moroccan Cinema’s Attempted Revolution

In 1968, the first substantive film festival was hosted in Tangier, Morocco, an event not mentioned in this impressionistic documentary directed by Ali Essafi. For the most part, “Before the Dying of the Light” is an immersive creation — its on-screen texts mostly philosophical rather than explanatory.

The date of that festival is significant, though, because it can be seen as an indicator of emergent Moroccan cinema, which in the 1970s aligned itself with other visual arts and briefly, under the oppressive regime of King Hassan II, tried to forge an authentic politically pertinent body of work.

Essafi assembles and presents staggering images. He juxtaposes on-the-street archival interviews; multiple covers of literary magazines, both in Arabic and French (France claimed the country as a “protectorate” from the 1910s until the mid-1950s); newsreel clips; scenes from European films shot in Morocco; and Morocco-produced mainstream films (including 1973’s “A Thousand and One Hands,” directed by Souheil Ben-Barka and starring the American actress Mimsy Farmer).

These are interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the 1974 film “About Some Meaningless Events.” Its filmmakers, led by the director Mostafa Derkaoui, are very self-interrogating, as was the custom in leftist aesthetics around the world at the time. Contemplating how to best use working-class people in the picture, a team member says, “We could write a script”; another immediately counters, “No.” Their obsessing about how to best capture the spirit of their times resulted in a picture that was suppressed soon after it was completed.

Even for viewers with little grounding in Moroccan history, Essafi’s film offers an inspiring view of a roiling period of artistic exploration.

Before the Dying of the Light
Not rated. In Arabic and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 8 minutes. Watch through MoMA’s Virtual Cinema.

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