By Thomas Puhr.
The film eschews many of the conventions associated with concert documentaries; it’s a celebration of a culture – its history, religion, land, and people – without which such music never would have existed.”
Even the most devout of audiophiles must admit that nothing quite compares to the experience of live music. After all, a song is more than an accumulation of sounds – it’s the musicians and their interactions with one another, their instruments, and their audience. It’s the collective excitement of witnessing – with others, be it a small gathering or a stadium of thousands – a performance. Yes, it can be appreciated and studied alone, but it is meant to be shared. Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (1981) – a chronicle of Nass El Ghiwane, a Moroccan band then at the height of its international popularity – understands this. As a result, the film eschews many of the conventions associated with concert documentaries; it’s a celebration of a culture – its history, religion, land, and people – without which such music never would have existed.
Maanouni immediately announces his interest in looking beyond the band, though each of its four members – Larbi Batma, Allal Yaala, Omar Sayed, and Abderrahman Kirouche – is given his due screen time. The opening shots emphasize not the performers, but their rapt audience, effectively holding a mirror up to the film’s audience, too. When we do glimpse the quartet, they are shown from a distance, as if the camera is another member of the crowd. Indeed, Trances is as much about seeing as it is hearing, and the director seems fascinated by the listeners’ varied reactions. In the larger venues, they sit in awed silence, rush on the stage to steal a hug, or dance with abandon. The smaller, intimate performances summon their own kind of magic; in one beautiful sequence, the camera hones in on a young woman as she removes the glasses from her sweat-drenched face, falls to her knees, and flings her arms. Her facial expression – intensified by a subtle use of slow motion – borders on the ecstatic, and the soundtrack slowly fades away as her movements dominate the screen. It’s a hypnotic moment, one which captures – through silence – the music’s allure.
An obvious, but significant, benefit for non-Moroccan Arabic speakers are the subtitles, which translate the songs’ impassioned lyrics. One need not be a scholar of North Africa – Portugal’s long history of occupying Moroccan territory, France’s colonization of Morocco in the early twentieth century – to sense the political urgency in lines like “Death has danced on the Arab while tyrants multiply,” “Is hunger a damnation in this world? Why do the children’s corpses lie forgotten?” or “The loss of men torments me. Rebuilding walls is small consolation.” A dynamic sequence – interspersed both with black-and-white war images and concert footage – follows singer-drummer Batma as he recounts the legend of Aïsha Kandisha, who became “the first woman ever to be a rebel,” bewitching, driving mad, and then killing any Portuguese soldier who crossed her path. These separate elements (storytelling, musical performance, historical documentation) merge – not unlike the group’s instruments – into a unique, cohesive audiovisual experience.
This interest in the past dominates the closing scene, wherein grainy television footage of the band’s original iteration (led by founding members Boujemaa Hgour, who died in 1974, and Moulay Abdelaziz Tahiri) is superimposed over a packed performance at Carthage in 1981. This juxtaposition illustrates the contemporaneousness of past and present, the timelessness of the band itself; though they attracted young crowds (including children) in droves, their music was firmly embedded in ancient poetic and theatrical traditions. Known for their lack of electronic sounds, they instead relied on traditional Moroccan instruments: the darbuka, bendir, guembri, and fretless banjo. Watching the film in 2021 only exacerbates this sense of temporal diffusion. Perhaps this is what Maanouni refers to in a 2013 interview, wherein he enigmatically calls his intended theme “simmering.”
I’d recommend watching the film before viewing any of the Criterion Blu-ray supplements. To go in not knowing much – or anything – about it, to let its multisensory approach wash over you. It’s full of small, wonderful surprises, such as when Kirouche strikes up an impromptu jam session with a passing street musician, their duet punctuated by a nearby woodworker’s rhythmic chiseling. Or when Kirouche plays alone on a parapet overlooking a windswept sea. By contrast, footage of a recording session in a studio – while no less indicative of the group’s technical prowess – only underscores how critical live performance is to their music. They seem out of place in the cramped studio, almost uncomfortable. This is a band that is meant to be seen as much as heard. Thankfully, most of the film highlights the band doing what they do best: playing for people, and for each other. It’s only when Maanouni veers away from these central figures – as he does in an awkwardly inserted interview with a theater director, who expounds on how “Nass El Ghiwane isn’t a pop group in the conventional sense, but more of a theater group that sings” – that Trances loses some of its impressionistic power.
The supplemental materials are sparse but undeniably informative, especially for those – like myself – who knew nothing about Nass El Ghiwane going into their first viewing. Trances, we learn, was the very first film restored by Martin Scorsese’s famous World Cinema Project (he caught it by chance on late-night television, while editing The King of Comedy, 1982, with Thelma Schoonmaker). “They created a form of trance music that was hypnotic…and deeply inspiring,” he explains in his brief (very brief: less than two minutes) introduction to the restoration. “I would later learn that they were more than just a band, really. They were the singing soul of their country, Morocco.” They also directly inspired Scorsese’s work; he obsessively listened to them while prepping 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ (he even tried, but failed, to track down Maanouni while shooting in Morocco).
More significantly, another featurette includes insights from Maanouni, producer Izza Génini (it’s she who reveals that her original idea was to simply record the Carthage concert, before the project was expanded to include interviews, poetic shots of Moroccan landscapes and streets, and footage of cultural and religious ceremonies), and Sayed himself. Decades later, the director’s passion for Nass El Ghiwane shines through; for him, audiences identified with them – and still do – because they “expressed their rebellion, their thirst for freedom, their thirst for justice.” Such thirsts will never become outdated.
It must be noted, though, that both this short documentary and Scorsese’s intro make up for about twenty combined minutes of bonus features. Pretty scant compared to the best of the boutique label’s releases, especially since the filmand all of its supplements (including Sally Shafto’s 2013 essay) can already be enjoyed in Volume One of Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (also released by Criterion). The latter is far and away the better investment; with an additional eight discs and five features, it costs about as much as three copies of Trances would.
I appreciate the company’s initiative to give these gems of global cinema their own treatment – Trances indeed deserves a discrete place on the Criterion shelf, without Scorsese’s name dominating the front cover – but the effort seems self-defeating if nothing new is added to the accompanying critical resources (Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki, 1973, was similarly re-released earlier this year with a bit – but not much – more to offer). So far, these individual editions culled from the World Cinema Project feel conspicuously incomplete.
The films, of course, remain magnificent.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.