You are here: American University Alumni News Dounia Benjelloun Mezian


Dounia Benjelloun Mezian: Moroccan Moviemaker Extraordinaire

How American University stoked a young filmmaker’s passion for documentary production

By  | 

For Dounia Benjelloun Mezian, SOC/BA ’85, the love of film runs in the family. She recalls Saturdays of her youth spent in her grandfather’s home theater, peering up at the double and triple features he projected.

“My grandfather was the distributor of the Columbia [and United International] Pictures in Morocco, and he owned movie theaters,” Dounia says. “He inspired me by being himself, being passionate about the movie business, … and taking me to his office and theaters.”

Looking back on the many pictures he introduced her to, she remembers the thrill of experiencing Dr. Zhivago for the first time. There was something about watching its epic love story unfold.

But Dounia’s grandfather wasn’t the only family member who influenced the trajectory of her life. Both of her parents—her Moroccan father, a bank founder and CEO, and her Spanish mother, a physician and businesswoman—pursued higher-level education. Her dad even earned a degree in Switzerland, taking his studies international. Dounia would go on to do the same: relocate to another country, transforming her admiration of movies into a professional prospect.

Touchdown in The District

Enter Washington, DC in the 1980s. Dounia departed from Morocco to enroll in communications courses at American University, having heard of its standout filmmaking program in the US capital. While a leap like this may have seemed daring to many a 17-year-old, Dounia was accustomed to women stretching beyond their comfort zones to secure their dreams.

She gestures to the influence of her family again—especially her trailblazing female relatives. “I grew up...surrounded by working women,” she says, referencing doctor, fashion designer, and pharmacist family members. “So, for me, it was...very normal that I also studied to have a...[career] I had a passion for.”

AU, and the city at large, not only transformed her worldview but molded her philosophy as a filmmaker. “I learned everything in Washington, DC,” she says. In particular, she came to appreciate the art of collaboration, experiencing for the first time what it felt like to be part of a film crew.

It comes as no surprise that the filmmaking classes were her favorites, given their practical nature. “We had to work as a team,” she says, referencing how students were grouped together. “We had to make up the story, film it, and then edit it.” What better way to learn how to construct films than by trying out each production step for size? These courses served as the early building blocks of her career.

In addition to “learn[ing] to tell a story...[and] be creative,” her favorite part of attending AU was “meeting interesting American and foreign students” and working with exceptional educators.

But perhaps the most significant influence the university had on her was introducing her to the magic of documentary filmmaking.

Preserving unique perspectives through documentary film

Only a year after graduating, Dounia established her own production company in the city she was born in—and one that is cinematic in its own right: Casablanca. Called Dounia Productions, her studio is known for its exploratory documentaries and striking commercials. Directly before making this major career move, Dounia held industry roles in both New York and Morocco. (This included a stint working in advertising for The Living Daylights, a James Bond movie, on set in Morocco.)

Dounia—who is fluent in English, French, and Spanish and whose films reflect this multilingualism—chiefly directs and produces films. And, just like her late grandfather, she would go on to oversee seven different movie theaters throughout Morocco and work with Columbia and United International Pictures as a film distributor.

The mission of Dounia Productions “is to create and distribute films aspiring to share new and diverse perceptions through singular moments of life that relate the multiplicity and richness of our civilizations.” Her movies depict everything from the Muslim pilgrimage Hajj through the lens of a historic traveler (Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta, 2009) to a young Native American girl’s ritual-based induction into adulthood (Kiana’s Apache Ceremony, 2019). The studio’s emphasis upon documentaries and globalism points back, in many ways, to AU.

“We did a lot of documentaries when I was studying,” Dounia says. “I think that stayed with me, and I just love the...process because it’s a whole discovery.” She revels in the learning that comes with pre-production research. Also, “you meet new people, you make new connections, [and] you have to choose the crew,” she says. “It’s just fascinating.”

Dounia Productions’ studio is decked out with post-production tools and a viewing room, complete with plush seating. The studio has earned a series of awards, including Best Documentary at the New York Film Awards and Best Cinematography at the Madrid International Film and Video Festival.

Dounia considers a promotional film made for a regional bank to be one of the crown jewels of her portfolio. Entitled Let’s Dream of a New World, the commercial—propelled by epic natural vistas—was produced with a director Dounia admires and personally recruited.

As far as formal influences go, she is inspired by Michael Moore, the creator of films like Bowling for Columbine—naming his works among her “must-see” films.

Advice for the young at heart

Dounia remains inspired by the pair that raised her, claiming that if she could adopt skills her parents possess, she would pick “perseverance and passion.”

Lesson number one: Put in the work and stay patient. “You have to be positive, optimistic,” she says. “You’re not going successful right away. Sometimes it takes years for your hard work to be noticed.”

Lesson number two: Don’t let your flame flicker out. “ you the enthusiasm to overcome challenges and difficulties,” she says. People pursuing careers in filmmaking should remember what drove them to study it in the first place and hang tight to the moments that first made their creative minds soar.

She also advises those breaking into the field “to strive for excellence, … work with passion, … and be professional.” She even recommends beefing up public speaking skills. In fact, if she could return to AU and enroll in a course she didn’t take, she would take one on this very subject.

As a filmmaker, “You have to [address]...the press,” she says. And when you’re looking to pre-sell your movies at festivals, “you have to talk to the distributors.” Confidence and articulateness before audiences, then, is critical in the industry.

Finally, “In film production, you have to be very organized,” she says—especially if you want to achieve balance between the personal and professional. “I try to disconnect when I get home,” she says, listing walking, watching films, reading, and meditating as her go-to activities for decompressing.

Zooming in on the future

Dounia points to storytelling as the past, present, and future of her native Morocco. She anticipates that movies and books will drive revenue in the arts—alongside storytelling groups and events, like the international festival in Marrakesh.

This doesn’t mean, though, that creative progress will come without speedbumps. “The biggest challenge, I think, is to find financing to do your project and to find film distributors to commercialize your film,” Dounia says. And, she admits, the rise of streaming may make this problem even thornier.

However, she is personally involved in cycling money back into the industry and accelerating young talent. Specifically, she leverages her resources to help other girls excel at filmmaking, just as she has. In teaming up with three other directors and a producer, she helped spawn the TAMAYOUZ Foundation—a scholarship-granting organization aiming to improve accessibility and diversity in all levels of the field. The foundation functions in tandem with ESAVM: Ecole Supérieure des Arts Visuels de Marrakech (“The Superior School of Visual Arts Marrakech”).

Beyond continuing with these commendable philanthropic pursuits, what’s next for Dounia? She is thrilled to embark upon an adventure of a lifetime in producing a film about Berber architecture, largely in southern Morocco. “I’ve been wanting to do [this film] since I arrived [back home] from the university,” she says. “It's going to be beautiful [and] about the Kasbahs [and] the Ksours.”

As for her AU family, we will be waiting with bated breath until her next masterpiece drops.