With the second Egyptian revolution happening today, we are reminded of the importance of freedom of expression. Three days before September 11, 2001, I landed in Morocco to start my new job as the high school English teacher at the American School of Tangier where I started a film program. That year we were bombarded with negative media, which is why I ultimately felt students needed to be empowered by being given their own video cameras. And they did a great job – the concept for their first commercial: a guy who can’t stop thinking about “Joly Anchovies” – and when he finally gets his hands on some, all his friends want some too. “You Know You Want It” was their tagline.
Freedom of expression is a powerful privilege that the technology of simple video capturing and free online distribution has amplified. I started a film program in Morocco before smartphones had the same level of video capability that they do now, and before YouTube was around to upload your projects for free.
There’s no question the important role that both social media and advanced technology have had over the last ten years in changing the political landscape in the Middle East. But my intentions at that time were to make the camera and computer editing technology available to give my students the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in a new medium and tell the stories they wanted to tell – basically an art class to learn filmmaking and digital storytelling. So in this film program, my students could learn everything from video production techniques to directing for film.
Historically, the Arab world wasn’t always a place where freedom of expression was readily encouraged in certain formats like film, which is why film programs weren’t in usually in schools. But in other formats like language, poetry, oral storytelling, and music it has some of the deepest most emotionally rich and powerful art I’ve encountered. One of the first things you’ll see in the giant plaza in Marrakech (The Jemaa El F’naa) are the storytellers with people gathered around them, some of them playing an instrument to accompany. I learned about this cultural depth when I started studying Arabic for the first time, and when I started to better understand the history of the Arab world, and Morocco in particular. The visual arts too are incredible – Asilah, a town right next to Tangier where I lived, repainted the walls every summer with incredible artists from around the world.
If you know a little bit about Morocco, you know that it’s a special place in the Middle East and the world. Moroccans consider themselves to be a unique part of the Arab landscape, counting themselves part of the Arab world, but also setting themselves apart by their unique international history (it was the first country to recognize the US had split from UK), their close proximity to the Americas, and generally a more easy going mentality around some of the stricter rules of other Arab nations.
One of those more flexible areas would have been around film, as Morocco started the Marrakech Film Festival in 2002. And while there weren’t lots of film programs in Morocco, there was a lot of Hollywood filmmaking happening (Babel, Alexander, The Bourne Ultimatum to name a few). Certainly, my students were extremely interested in filmmaking – had lots of energy, some great ideas, and couldn’t wait to get started making their own projects. So their first non-political fun assignment was to create a mini-commercial.
Several of my students went on to be filmmakers, web series creators, and YouTubers making videos in their own regard, and I’m so proud of them for continuing to express themselves and tell their stories with video. I don’t take my freedom of expression for granted, and appreciate every opportunity I’ve had to make a short film, video, or web series simply because it was an idea that I had, or a story that I wanted to tell. My hope is for the larger Arab world is that they will continue to have the opportunity to make their own art – telling their own stories through filmmaking, digital storytelling with video, or even making their own web series.
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