The Revival of the Amazigh Language Through Film

by Hugo Bordas

While often disregarded by western media, indigenous cultures from North Africa are reviving their languages through artistic mediums such as film and music. From Egypt to Morocco and from Burkina Faso to Libya, the Amazight call the four corners of the Sahara their home. The Amazigh, or erroneously called Berber, are an ethnic group that have survived many waves of invasion, from the conquest of the Maghreb by Arabs to European colonizers.  Be that as it may, the Amazigh have attained to their culture and their identity as autochthonous people of the region, stretching their presence in North Africa to at least two millennia, as explains Dr. Mohamed Chtatou.

From centuries of struggle and discriminatory policies, the Berber’s have managed to achieve change in political and social spheres through the so-called Amazigh Cultural Renaissance. However, this is just the contemporary result of a centuries-old decentralized movement, as Dr. Chtatou shares. The cultural renaissance is based on the pillars of the entire movement, which are: Awal (language), Akkal (land), and Ddam (blood). Due to ethnicity having a fundamental connection with language, the biggest identitarian efforts of the Amazigh people have been centered on their languages: Tamazight.

There are currently around 50 million Imazighen divided by different groups. Those under the geographical borders of Morocco have managed to achieve major changes in their socio-political reality since the 70s. The country’s active community and its history with cinema enabled the growth of media in Tamazight, which started developing films on traditional themes and identitarian issues in the late 80s. This form of indigenous media comprises two main forms of expression: the classic big-screen movies and the rather informal filmmaking focused on rural life in a soap opera style, explains Professor Daniela Merolla in her article for Inalco. Both of these mediums worked as a form of protest in order to showcase the group’s culture and language, and were based on the lack of recognition from Morocco and Algeria.

The process of bringing Amazigh films to the big screen was first started by directors Mohamed Mernich, Ahmed Baidou, and Mohamed Amin Benamraoui in Morocco, while Abderrahmane Bouguermouh and Belkacem Hadjadj led the process in Algeria. One of the main stars in the field is Lahoucine Ibourka. He left his hometown near Agadir and moved to Casablanca in the hopes of becoming an actor. With the help of Warda Vision, one of the many societies based on directing Amazigh films, Ibourka ascended to fame with his charming personality and acting skills, often under the direction of Archach Agouram, who rose to fame through a local version of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” where Ibourka performed roles such as Da Hmad in the so-called Boutfounaste films, a 90’s classic.

Between 1992 and 2008, 28 Amazigh production societies released 158 films. These movies had their reach amplified by the many festivals dedicated to the language. The first one being organized in Casablanca as a response to the lack of Amazigh representation, which forwarded these films into other North African festivals and so on. This led to a broader foreign interest and audience that helped consolidate Amazigh Film Festivals in cities such as New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and Boston.

One of the most impactful actions for the area was the creation of the New York Forum of Amazigh Film, which has a mission to: “create a space where filmmakers, artists, and scholars, whose work focuses on indigenous Amazigh identity and culture, can gather yearly to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with a diverse audience and foster dialogue across local, transnational, and global issues’.” The creation of groups like NYFA is a synthesis of the work of Amazigh activism and its global reach by sharing local culture and language to the rest of the region and the world.

The first major move in the region towards recognition happened in Morocco under the rule of King Mohammed VI, who, in 2001, issued a royal mandate for the formation of the “Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh.” Based on the support of this population and on raising awareness to their issues, the creation of IRCAM was important in order to officially recognize the group’s national importance, nonetheless, political recognition is still a struggle. However, in 2011, Morocco finally changed its constitution with the intention to add Tamazight as an official language side-to-side with Arabic. This was the most important move in the region to this day, and it was followed by Algeria in 2016.

Even with big political gestures, this is just the beginning for the recognition of the Imazighen, who still encounter many obstacles in their desire for comprehensive recognition. Even with the officialization of Tamazight by the Moroccan and Algerian constitutions, national documents are not translated to the language and it is far from being as normalized as Arabic is in both countries.

It is clear to see how strong the Imazighen groups are and how their cultural practices have been incorporated in their film industry. The beauty of this population is being shared not only through big screen movies but also low-budget films and tapes made for internal distribution, which are strong methods for dissemination of the Tamazight Language in order to pursue their goals with maintaining their practices and sharing their activism.