In the wake of recent violent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the mood has been reflective and somber at the Marrakech International Film Festival this year. A group of global filmmakers and artists have descended on the Moroccan city, which is itself a place where European culture melts into Arabic and North African traditions. Upon receiving his Etoile D’Or Lifetime Achievement Award on opening night, Bill Murray spoke emotionally about his heartbreak over the recent terror attacks, and many of the other filmmakers present have expressed similar sentiments. Canadian director Atom Egoyan, the head of the Canadian delegation receiving a tribute to Canadian cinema mentioned that in the face of fear, it was more important than ever to come together in this country and celebrate art that can unite. This was in line with what Italian actor/director and jury member Sergio Castellito said during the jury press conference, when he said that coming to Morocco was an act of goodwill and a political gesture in the wake of paralyzing events.
Headed by Francis Ford Coppola, the jury for the festival also includes Anton Corbijn, Olga Kurylenko, Jean-Pierra Jeunet, Naomi Kawase, Bollywood star Richa Chaddha, Moroccan actress Amal Ayouch, and French-Tunisian actor Sami Bouajila. They held a lively press conference on Saturday morning, ruminating with candor on the sad events of the fall, as well as such hot topics such as opportunities for women directors, and whether or not art can save the world. Unfortunately, no one can seem to agree on the women directors issue (Kurylenko thinks everyone’s “a little bit psychotic” on the topic) and as for cinema’s power to influence, right now, everyone’s not so sure about that.
Though he encouraged journalists to ask questions of the other members at the outset of the conference, Coppola couldn’t help but get a few comments in on these topics at the end, launching into an off-the-cuff lecture of sorts, talking about the freedom for art to influence and the state of women in society and in filmmaking. With deep references and a willingness to draw on history, Coppola quoted the Quran, called himself a former “boy scientist,” and rattled off a list of influential women throughout history, including Elizabeth I, Ada Lovelace, and Hatshepsut. But during the history lesson, Coppola made some refreshingly bold and candid statements.
Coppola at first addressed the issue of cinema’s social power, saying, “When I was a boy, I wanted to know who ran the world, who really was in charge. And I came up with an interesting idea: you can figure out who is running the world by who is employing the artists.” While the days of Vatican and Medici patronage are long gone, the concept remains the same, with Coppola stating it’s “the various corporations who are employing the artists. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because art indeed has the power to change the world, that the artists are in charge of their art, because they’re not.” Coppola emphasized that “cinema can do it but it’s not free. What is the cinema today? What we call the language of the cinema was invented around the turn of the century by pioneers who were free to experiment.” Coppola sees a homogenization of artistic cinematic expression dictated by market forces. “The language of the cinema was made by experimentation. Today you can’t experiment, you can’t dare to experiment,” he said. “The people who control the motion picture, what it’s going to be, hire the directors, want to make money.”
Having thrown out a bit of an unfinished metaphor about cinema being the fire of Prometheus, Coppola stated that “we’re on a turning point of the cinema. The cinema that your grandchildren will make will be nothing like we have ever seen. But to do that, to arrive at that evolution, Prometheus has to be freed and the filmmaker has to be able to experiment and take a chance. In my career that was always the issue. I wanted to make personal films, I didn’t want to make commercial films, I wanted to make personal films.” In fact, this assertion of individuality is the advice he gave to his own children, saying “if you’re going to make films, I told my children, make personal films. Make films that only you can make, because there’s only one of you. And my children, I’m proud to say, have done that.” Coppola still believes that cinema can “really be a force to unite the various people of the world to realize that we are human beings commonly bound by love,” but, “it has to be free.”
On the topic of women directors, Coppola went all the way back to Ancient Greece and tribal politics to show just how far women have come, considering that they have not long had equal rights in the scope of human history. He says, “it’s been a long evolution from the fact of the type of species we are.” But he paid homage to his UCLA film teacher, Dorothy Arzner, as a pioneering woman director in Hollywood. Citing the aforementioned examples and more, he said “we have a history of women every bit as great as great men, and we know women can do anything a man can do. And will as our species evolves.” He urged patience and to celebrate the successes, saying “it takes this time and we have seen it happen now. The women are doing dazzling work and when I started in film there were no women film directors, so my daughter became one of the first, so I feel there is good progress.”
Coppola closed his remarks with an address to the “heartbreaking” recent events, but quoted the first page of the Quran, lines about the “gracious and merciful God.” He said, “anyone who knows this beautiful religion… everyone knows at the root of that religion, the two most important words are God is gracious and God is merciful and we trust God to deliver us from this misunderstanding that is doing these terrible things that are hurting. God does not want people to be hurt, God is gracious, God is merciful.”
With a simple, “And that’s what I have to say,” Coppola closed his remarks and that was that. But his words are true, and lasting. Maybe he and Murray are getting sentimental in their years, but both men seemed to want to express their love and compassion, and in the most honest of ways. Coppola’s candor about the film industry, while not necessarily groundbreaking, are amazingly candid, and hopeful for the cinematic power to affect the world. We’ll just have to see if those things become a part of Coppola’s next history discussion.
We’ll have more from Coppola later in the week, but you can listen to an edited version of the press conference below. Coppola’s remarks start at 19:28.