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Movies and Marrakech: What now for North Africa's glitziest film festival?

The Moroccan film event attracts international talent - but has it failed Middle Eastern directors?
Actress Monica Bellucci attends a screening of Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra (2002) at Marrakech in December 2018 (AFP)
By in
Marrakech, Morocco

They could hardly contain their excitement at the  Marrakech International Film Festival. Legendary Hollywood star Robert Redford was on his way and the atmosphere had reached fever pitch. 

In the Palais des Congres, the flagship venue for North Africa’s most stylish cinema event, crowds packed the Royal Room to see the 83-year old Sundance Kid in the flesh.

On stage, the veteran Oscar-winning actor, director and festival founder was as generous, articulate and perceptive as ever. But for a discussion of this magnitude, the event – entitled “A Conversation With Redford Redford” - felt underwhelming, undermined by irrelevant, if not bizarre, questions relating to social justice, the myth of the American family and the concept of happiness.

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Robert Redford collects a career achievement award at the Marrakech International Film Festival (AFP)

Among the section of the audience where this writer was sat there was an air of unmistakable exasperation, including audible sighs of frustration. The moderator – Francois Busnel, a French literary journalist who specialises in American culture – barely touched on film history, aesthetics or craft. Instead the questions felt generic, if not shallow.

The event encapsulated the fundamental contradiction inherent at Marrakech. On the one hand it is an event where the French influence is strong, particularly in the choice of the all-star international jury, the lifetime achievement awards, the French moderators of the Conversations series and the overall glamour. For many, this is to the festival's detriment. After all, they could have found a film critic from Morocco or the wider Arab world to interview Redford - there's no shortage. 

Marrakech is a festival that has grown, during a couple of years, into one of the most important film events in the region

Having said that, Marrakech boasts impeccable film programming, coupled with noteworthy and increasing Arab participation. The industry section, the Atlas Workshops, are some of the best in the region, rivalled only by Doha’s Qumra. (Declaration: I moderated one of this year's Atlas panels on the rise of Arab genre cinema.)

These two opposing forces, francophile and Arab, are the modus operandi at Marrakech, a festival that has grown during the past couple of years into one of the most important film events in the region. Here, in Morocco each November and December, exists a neutral ground for filmmakers from Africa and the Arab world; a safe, hospitable space where they can showcase their work.

But that growth feels under threat in the wake of this year’s event, which wrapped on 7 December, and the departure of artistic director Christoph Terhechte, who has done so much to revitalise the event during the course of two short years.

It also illustrates that internal conflicts about the festival’s mission and desired profile have not been resolved. Support is still needed if, through its programming and workshops, Marrakech is to continue to be the substantial force in the Arab film scene that it has become.

Films mean tourism

Marrakech was founded in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, an initiative by King Mohammed VI to build an intercultural bridge between nations.

A more tangible objective was to capitalise on Morocco’s growing reputation as a locale for Hollywood and European productions: films shot there at the time included The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001). Tourist promotion was a key strand of Marrakech's DNA and continued to define its identity and activities for 15 editions.

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Young Moroccans watch Ahmed El Maanouni's feature Transes in Jemaa El Fna Square, Marrakech in 2007 (AFP)

Its emergence was in stark contrast to how Morocco habitually organised film events. These were usually run by the renowned critic Noureddine Sail at the Centre Cinematographique Marocain (CCM), boosting local production and increased collaboration with other Arab countries.

In contrast, the Marrakech film festival felt like a remote island, a festival that contributed nothing to the renaissance of the then-nascent Arab cinema at the turn of the century.

From the get-go, Marrakech was conceived as a strictly francophone affair

The festival’s first director was French producer, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, kickstarting a long and enduring lineage of French cineastes associated with Marrakech that has endured to this day. Such associations have no parallel in any other festival in the Arab world. 

From the get-go, Marrakech was conceived as a strictly francophone affair. Contrary to other major regional festivals, it never sought to secure premieres for its limited Arab film selection, and in doing so alienated Moroccan and Arab critics alike, confining its reach instead to French and American press.

Programming was a hodgepodge of best-of films of the year, scattered across indistinct categories and attracting a negligible volume of audience.

Unlike festivals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Carthage, Arab filmmakers were of little importance to Marrakech. Instead it was an event where star-studded juries, boasting names you might expect at Cannes and Venice, judged a disjointed selection of older films that had already played at more respected events on the festival circuit.

That it did not stage any world premieres was not so much bizarre as emblematic of where the festival's main concerns lay. During these years, Marrakech was a festival of no significance, an elitist endeavour that trudged aimlessly from one edition to the next.

International meets Arab

In 2017, Marrakech did not take place, amid mounting criticism from disgruntled local media at the dominance of French cinema at the expense of regional content and talent. Most pundits believed that the event would follow the same fate as festivals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, large and showy Gulf events that were suddenly discontinued in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

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But Marrakech didn’t fold. Instead its organisers announced that the event would be back, with a new administration presided over by Terhechte, the former head of the Berlinale's Forum section, which focuses on art house and experimental cinema.

The team would also include esteemed curator, Rasha Salti, former programmer at Toronto, North America’s most respected festival, who was responsible for sourcing films from the Middle East and North Africa.

Part of Marrakech’s overhaul would include a new industry platform, entitled Atlas, to be managed by Remi Bonhomme, general coordinator of Cannes’ Critics’ Week, and long-time supporter of Arab cinema. It would present grants to Arab and African films in development and post-production.

During the course of that one edition in 2018, Marrakech was transformed overnight, attracting industry and programmers from around the world, while also extending a hand to local and regional film communities.

“To be honest, I didn’t know the festival before,” Bonhomme told Middle East Eye. “I never attended it. When the festival contacted me, I didn’t really think about the festival itself but rather what I’d like to do in the Arab world.”

Bonhomme emphasised that the radical transformation Marrakech underwent came about not only because of the change in team but also because of the rise in prominence of Arab cinema.

“What made Marrakech distinctive from other festivals in the region is its wide access to international filmmakers and industry members, a factor the festival always enjoyed. This was a golden opportunity to bring together the international industry with Arab and African filmmakers under one roof.

"The festival needed to be more involved in the region. Before we came on board, the festival was disconnected from what was happening in the region and we believed that it could play a more active role in Arab and African cinemas.”

Arab film growth

Marrakech also needed to be more involved with audiences – and not just the high-end ones who waltzed down the red carpet. The art house cinema-going public in Morocco is usually in its 20s and 30s, skewing younger than France and the rest of Europe, where attracting fresh audiences is becoming ever harder.

But plenty of work was needed to bridge the gap between the festival and its potential audience. Terhechte and his team used different approaches, for example working with cinemas and universities that already have established crowds. Bonhomme said: “This is the best audience you can get, because you constantly explore and try things with them."

Soon it became apparent that all that was needed to break this “mental barrier,” as Bonhomme describes it, between festival and the audiences was to reach out to them.

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The Unknown Saint: Anas El Baz plays a doctor, running a dispensary that doesn’t need him (Altamar Films, Le Moindre Geste)

The new team made Marrakech more interactive, giving away free badges to attend the screenings. It also launched Q&As with the film-makers for the first time in the festival’s history. 

“Morocco has 1.5 million admissions in cinemas every year, which is nothing for a country of its size,” Terhechte told Middle East Eye. “Tickets are very expensive, for a population more or less poor. That’s why the festival has always been free from the start. Anyone can apply to get a badge and enter all films without paying.

The number of Arab films has increased exponentially during the past two years

Terhechte admitted that fewer people had applied for the badges in 2018. “But when you walk around the Palais, and you see all these barriers and police and long queues and people in fancy dresses on the red carpet, most people think that this festival is not for them. And it took a lot of convincing for them to come.”

The number of Arab films has also increased exponentially during the past two years. This year, in a first for Marrakech, three Arab films had their regional premieres in competition, including Alaa Eddine Aljem’s The Unknown Saint from Morocco; Ala Eddine Slim's Tlamess from Tunisia (winner of best director); and Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan’s Last Visit from Saudi Arabia (winner of the jury prize).

Of the 80 films shown at this year’s edition, about 30 come from the Arab world and Africa – the biggest representation of the region’s cinema at Marrakech thus far. The 2019 edition also witnessed the largest participation of Arab press to date, along with local and regional programmers, distributors and producers.

Where to now?

Marrakech has made a great leap over a short span of time. So it was all the more surprising when it was announced in September that Terhechte would become artistic director of DOK Leipzig, Germany’s leading documentary film event.

Marrakech, strangely, is yet to officially announce Terhechte’s departure. It is understood that disagreements between Terhechte and the festival’s board regarding the vision each has for the festival are behind his departure.

Despite the positive press that the festival has received for its facelift, traces of the old model still persist, not only in the choice of French moderators and largely Western guest speakers, but also in its star-studded jury, which this year contained only one Arab member in Moroccan film-maker Ali Essafi.

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'The audience is much more intelligent than we might think it is'

- Christoph Terhechte, film festival director

Terhechte was quite diplomatic, and brief, on his reasons for quitting. “I feel like I’ve done what I could here. I feel like I’d like to do more, but I feel there’s some resistance to it,” he said. “I’m very proud that we’ve created a hub for Arab and African cinema in here. We could go a little further and have this presence in every segment of the festival, because there’s still a little bit too much of the European perspective in here, and I’d like to have more of the regional and local perspective.”

Terhechte, in other words, was not given the unbridled freedom he required to reform Marrakech - and that includes some aspects of the programming. For instance, he wanted to incorporate documentaries into every strand of the programme.

“I was not allowed to, at least in competition,” he told MEE. “We had a lot of documentaries in the programme, but I feel it’s unnatural to separate them like that. A little more diversity wouldn’t be so bad, especially since documentaries were the most sought-after films in the festival.

“I’m not sure what was their rationale, but I think they deem documentaries as something for a minority, that it's serious cinema and not something for a bigger audience.

"What we tried to do with our programme is to prove that high quality cinema, even the most challenging, does have a big audience. The audience is much more intelligent than we might think it is.”

When asked about his proudest achievement in the festival, Terhechte singled out the children's programme.

“Having 700-800 children from public schools every morning at the beautiful Cinema Colisee, it meant that about 4,000 children will have seen a film in a movie theatre for the first time in their lives.

“In two years, that would be 7,000-8,000. That means we have created a huge potential of filmgoers, and possibly film-makers. When the lights go down in the theatre and all these kids screaming with joy because they’ve never been in a big room that is completely dark with 7,000-8,000 others… It’s an experience they’ll never have in TV.”

The neutral zone

Despite the  talk of interference, both Terhechte and Bonhomme assert that Marrakech has not been a victim of censorship. When it came to the choice of films for either the main slate or Atlas, both had complete freedom to choose what they wanted.

And herein lies the real importance of Marrakech. Morocco may not be the most democratic state in the Arab world: in recent years, a rapper was jailed for tackling governmental corruption in his music, and a journalist was given a prison sentence for undergoing an abortion and having sex outside wedlock. The situation in Western Sahara remains desperately unchanged. 

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Nadir Bouhmouch's daring documentary Amussu (2019) is the type of work which finds political space to thrive at an event such as Marrakech.

At the same time, the country has undergone substantial reforms since Mohammed VI came to power in 1999. Cinema in particular has enjoyed a great deal of freedom compared to most of the Arab world.

Examples include Meryem Benm'Barek-Aloisi's Sofia (2018), which criticises the Moroccan law criminalising sex outside wedlock; Salvation Army (2013), Abdellah Taia's chronicle of his turbulent childhood as a gay teen in working class Casablanca; and, most daringly, Nadir Bouhmouch's documentary Amussu (2019), which chides the intelligence services and the police for clamping down on village protests against land confiscated for a silver mine.

This palpable freedom informs every facet of the Atlas Workshops at Marrakech, especially in the daring choice of projects, many of which wore their politics on their sleeves. This year they included Asmae El Moudir’s feature documentary, The Mother Of All Lies, concerning the bread riots of the 1980s and enforced collective amnesia; and Tanzanian Amil Shivji’s narrative debut, The Tug Of War, about the still taboo 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. Such inclusion is a feat that has become all the rarer in Arab industry platforms.

The inclusion of two atypical Egyptian projects this year also demonstrates the great liberty that Atlas, and by default Marrakech, currently enjoy, while also underscoring how increasingly political and restrictive Egyptian festivals have become.

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A Second Film, the sophomore effort of acclaimed Egyptian film-maker Tamer El Said, is a quasi-autobiographical tale about a young Egyptian father grappling with exile and displacement in a changing Berlin.

His debut feature, In The Last Days Of The City, was never allowed to be screened in Egypt and was pulled from competition at the Cairo International Film Festival in 2016. Magda Wassef, Cairo's former director, recently divulged that the authorities deemed its content objectionable.

Then there is Perfumed With Mint, the debut narrative feature from Muhammad Hamdy, who co-shot Jehane Noujaim’s seminal 2011 revolution documentary, The Square. It’s a surreal, hallucinatory piece, whose narrative comprises the intertwining nightmares of revolutionary activists struggling to overcome their lingering trauma.

Both projects stand tall amid the current lacklustre climate of Egyptian cinema: certainly increasing censorship means neither could’ve never been presented at events at home.

In this politically polarising landscape, Marrakech has positioned itself a safe haven where filmmakers like Hamdy and El Said can pitch their projects freely. Whatever the aforementioned issues, the importance of having a festival of Marrakech’s ilk has never been more urgent nor vital.

Bonhomme has said he will continue to preside over Atlas. But some observers now fear that with Terhechte’s departure, Marrakech could be returning to its old ways, championing glitz and grandeur over art.

For his part Bonhomme disagrees. “Marrakech cannot go back to what it was,” he says. “I’m sure it would not. We opened the door to the people and they came. The African and Arab films have proved to be the biggest draws of the festival and that shall not change.”