What would happen if a king supported first-time filmmakers? The Marrakech Film Festival in Morocco is a chance to investigate this question.
“The existence of this festival was the king’s will, with [festival director] Melita Toscan du Plantier,” Marrakech’s artistic director, Bruno Barde, said during an interview at the 14th edition, which concluded last week. The king in question is Mohamed IV, who started the festival along with his brother, Prince Moulay Rachid.
As a result, many aspects of the festival have a royal feel, with generous spending in all aspects. (Though the actual funding comes from sponsorships more than government spending.) The formal dress code for many screenings and red carpet showcases show the influence of Cannes. The hotels where guests stay are various degrees of luxe. (One filmmaker confided that his suite was the nicest hotel room he’d ever stayed in.) And all of the hotels are surrounded by orange trees, blue sky, and the white Atlas mountains. Delicate scents and sounds are everywhere: heady orange flower water and seductive oud.
Lavish With a Purpose
But those same scents are everywhere in Marrakech, not just in the luxurious spaces of the festival’s events. It’s a city in which luxury is everyday. The rich fabrics, colors, food, scents, spices, oils and the public spas — all of this is a part of life for most residents. To those outside the festival, the luxury might seem hypocritical, the idea of watching films about hardship and poverty followed by extravagant meals in beautiful settings. But in the city and within the festival, there’s a more subtle economic relationship.
A poetic description of this idea of the democratization of beauty can be seen in the Indian film “Labour of Love,” for which Aditya Vikram Sengupta won “Best Directing” from the festival jury. The daring film is mostly without dialogue, and follows the routines of a woman and man amid economic despair in Calcutta. The debut feature from Sengupta is a heartfelt exploration of romance forever percolating within daily drudgery. One close-up of oil in a pan, and a time-lapse shot of a footprint drying, rank among some of the most fascinating images of the year. And a scene of close-up shots of dry goods being put in jars was a triumph, sharing with Busby Berkeley its sense of texture, detail, abstraction and rhythms.
One remarkable aspect of the festival is that passes are free. Twenty-thousand festival passes and 30,000 daily passes are given away from the accreditation office, where people line up on the first day of the festival. So while some events are invitation-only, most are, in a way, open to all. But the three main venues have very different audiences. The Palais is similar to the hulking theater in Cannes, but more casual; The Collesseé is a regular movie theater, away from the tourist districts — the crowds there can be rowdy and vocal; Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, host to many markets and snake charmers, has outdoor screenings at night. Each venue has films tailored to it. For instance, as part of the tribute to Jeremy Irons, who was very much in attendance, David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” was screened in the Palais while “Die Hard” screened in the square.
The varying programming choices are designed to address a range of sensibilities. “What I hate in life, and in cinema more specifically, is walls or limits,” said Barde. “So rather than reducing people, I’d rather show them as huge as they can be. And Jeremy Irons is someone who’s been able to go from Shakespeare to ‘Die Hard.’ The audience of Jemaa el-Fnaa needs an ‘easy’ film, so they relate to it.”
However, he was quick to add: “‘Die Hard’ is a very good film! Because John McClane is an auteur.”
A Serious Sensibility
Barde is French, with a very auterist-style of programming, which attracts people who take cinema seriously to be on the juries. (This year, Isabelle Huppert was the president of a jury that included filmmakers Betrand Bonello and Cristian Mungiu, while Abderrahmane Sissako — whose “Timbuktu” recently made the Academy Awards shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film — was the president of the student shorts jury.)
French is the second language in Morocco, not English, and as a result American movies don’t dominate. Instead, Barde plays up cinema from a number of other, much closer countries.
“Marrakech is an international festival,” said Barde. “So for me it’s really a matter of really considering this while integrating the films of the Arab world and Africa.” He pointed out that while Cannes may occasionally program such films as well, “here, we really try,” noting that the lineup included both Egyptian and Moroccan titles.
Showcasing Egypt and Morocco
One result of this decentralization was a new sense of film history. The Air Maroc flight taking several guests to the festival from New York played classic Egyptian films such as “Ah Min Hawa” (“Beware of Eve”) along with “An Affair to Remember.” And in a festival screening of a new Egyptian film, “Blue Elephant,” at the Collisseé, I was almost crushed by a crowd that might have seemed more at home at a soccer game. As a result, festival works wonders for showcasing Egyptian cinema.
According to Barde, Egyptian cinema was fairly prominent in the region until the 80’s, when Bollywood outpaced it in terms of volume and popularity. The festival works as a corrective: This year, in addition to programming an Egyptian film in competition, it honored famed Egyptian actor Adel Imam. “We wanted to awaken this very unconscious relationship that very different generations of Moroccan cinema have to Egyptian cinema,” Barde said.
Despite the huge, enthusiastic reception for Imam at his tribute, most Western journalists in attendance were oblivious to his work. They were also provided a lesson in modern Moroccan cinema.
“I saw this evolution when I got here,” Barde said, recalling his arrival 11 years ago. “Morocco would produce seven films a year, and now it’s 25, which is enormous. And there is a whole generation of Moroccan filmmakers in their thirties and early forties who really learned cinema through the festival.”
He singled out the Cinécoles competition, short films from Moroccan film schools. “So compared to the rest of Africa, except for Niger, Morocco is really fulfilling a very specific role in terms of production and culture,” he said. “It’s something that’s already started, but Morocco will be a country for cinema.”
A Unique Place For Smaller Movies
While these noble goals of promoting cinema in Morocco and Africa in general have proven to be successful educational initiatives, the Marrakech Film Festival faces an unusual problem: the vibrant city threatens to overwhelm the films. Yet this seems to be evolving, as the festival has found a place unoccupied by other major festivals, in screening films traveling different pathways than those dominated by Cannes and Toronto. One such film was the jury grand prize-winner, “Corrections Class.”
A fascinating mixture of John Hughes and Lars Von Trier, the Russian-produced “Correction Class” is a terrific, masterfully-directed film that deserves more attention. But there’s a danger it has been overlooked on the recent festival circuit because of another film, from neighboring Ukraine, about a special needs class: Cannes-winning sign language drama “The Tribe.” But now that “Correction Class” has won in Marrakech, it has a better shot of getting out there.
By programming dynamic first films that might be overlooked at other festivals, Marrakech seems to be finding its identity. As Barde pointed out, more than half of the 15 films in competition were directed by first-timers. “It’s not that I wanted to focus on that specifically, it’s just the kind of energy I wanted to find in films,” he said. “I think in the impulse of the first film, there’s not only something of the future of the director but the future of cinema.”