Trances (1981)

Director: Ahmed El Maanouni

As I may have said before, I like Martin Scorsese for his love of other people’s films far more than his own films, and his World Cinema Foundation’s restoration work might be his real legacy for me; this was the first film they restored, about Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane (or “Riwane”, as the opening titles spell it; an oddity of transliteration or what?), and it’s apparently one of Marty’s own favourites. As for me, as you hopefully know, I have a number of blank spots when it comes to cinema, and African cinema (in its various flavours) is one of the biggest; for no really good reason, it has by and large just been one of those things I’ve never looked into much. So I made a tiny step tonight, and I will confess to being aided somewhat in my appreciation of this film by the Masters of Cinema DVD booklet essay (plus the online version of its Criterion equivalent). I was particularly struck by the information about the particular form of Moroccan Arabic they sing in, and by something band member Omar Sayed says about “eastern music”, implying there’s also something different about Moroccan music to the stuff coming out of, say, Egypt at the time. Is there also a perception that Moroccans see themselves as separate from other Arabs? I don’t know.

Anyway, our subjects had played in Paris for the first time about three years earlier, at which time the film’s producer had also just distributed in France a documentary on Bob Marley. So director El Maanouni was drafted in to make a concert film, but he decided he wanted to do something a bit more interesting; as such, the concert footage (which mostly seems to come from two sources, one a small indoors show and the other a much bigger stadium-type deal) is interspersed with other stuff which El Maanouni happily admitted to be “re-enactments”; it’s not quite Werner Herzog but the “documentary” footage kind of, you know, isn’t really. Does it make a difference? I doubt it. The real point is the music, of course, a sort of highly poetic protest music which is remarkable stuff, and obviously anyone with a passing interest in north African music should see the film just for that; someone says in the film Nass El Ghiwane are less a band than a theatre group which sings, which is an interesting perspective, but either way the band have a remarkable effect on their audience (who look like they’re tripping out just on the music at times) despite only playing acoustic instruments; the crowd just wanders on and off the stage with some abandon. Indeed, this behaviour kind of leads to the film’s slightly disquieting climax; the soldiers providing security finally get fed up and start laying into someone in the crowd behind the band, who evidently don’t know what’s going on and keep playing. It’s not exactly the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, but it’s still a bit unnerving; a reminder that just because the band’s songs may be advocating peace, that’s evidently not enough to actually stop trouble happening around them…

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