When the Marrakech film festival was launched in 2001 it received a somewhat lukewarm reception from certain quarters of the local film industry and media, because it was viewed as an alien implant that had nothing to do with local cultural expression.
However that reticence has now completely dissipated and the fest is seen as the most important annual showcase for Moroccan cinema and a means of forging increasingly strong ties with the international film industry.
The festival’s programming spans 4 venues – including the Palais de Congres, which is the heart of the festival, and also the Megarama multiplex and the centrally-located picture palace, “Le Colisée”.
But one of the most emblematic moments of the fest is the nightly open-air screening in the Place Jemaa el Fna’s – the city’s best-known landmark, classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
These open-air screenings also provide an opportunity for guest directors and producers to shift from the exclusive red carpet atmosphere of the Palais des Congres and mingle with the locals.
This year marked the first-ever occasion on which a Moroccan film has received an open-air screening in the square.
Fittingly, the film, “Kanyamakan” by 35-year old director Said C. Naciri, was also partially lensed in the square.
Anyone who has visited the Place Jemaa el Fna will be familiar with its sensory overload – snakes, monkeys, henna tattoo artists, fire-eaters, food stalls enveloped in smoke, and motorbikes that weave their way through passers-by.
The sheer volume of activity in the square – that is constantly filled with thousands of people – makes it an attractive location, but also a difficult location for a feature film production.
Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is one of the rare feature films to have been shot inside the square, and helmer Naciri claims that his pic is the first feature film since Hitchcock’s 1956 production to be lensed directly inside the locale.
In order to be able to shoot inside this micro-world, Naciri assembled an extensive local cast, including acrobats and fire-eaters who work every day in the square.
Not surprisingly this fuelled an enthusiastic “homecoming” when the film screened in the square on Tuesday evening.
Naciri and his brother-producer, Mamoun Naciri, attended the screening, together with key cast members.
In these screenings, the locals are used to hearing guests speaking English or French which is then translated into Arabic, but on this occasion everything was spoken in Arabic and the crowd cheered as Naciri and his colleagues leaped in the air before the audience, to the delight of the photographers.
The other attractions taking place in the square suddenly had to compete with a new kind of conjuring trick, as the lights went down, the music turned up and approximately 2,000 people migrated towards the square’s southern corner to watch the film.
In a strange double-take, the opening scene is set precisely in the square, including a high adrenaline car chase through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the Medina, before jumping to the desert plains near Ouarzazate.
The screening was surreally accompanied by chanting from the nearby mosques, as biscuit-sellers and other vendors wove their way through the standing audience, eager to tap this new market.
Director Said C. Naciri – who graduated from the LA Film School in 2002 – previously lensed a 60-minute film, “Casbah Story” in Marrakech’s Medina, assisted by US duo, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, using a rollerblade filming technique that was subsequently used in films such as “Crank” and “Ghost Rider 2”.
He and his brother describe “Kanyamakan” as a mixture of “El Mariachi”, “Indiana Jones” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
“My film is a bit like a UFO in the Moroccan cinematic universe” explains Naciri. “Our goal is to offer an irreverent twist to clichéd views of Moroccan culture and landmarks – this is a mixture of a fable and an action-adventure film whose primary goal is to entertain.”
“Kanyamakan” includes ambitious choreographed action sequences, assisted by the fact that the main character is portrayed by stuntman and fight choreographer, Mohamed El Achi, who has worked on pictures such as Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk”.
Another key role is performed by Moroccan actor Afif Ben Badra who has played in pics such as “10,000 BC” and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”.
French-Iranian actress Sarah Kazemy (“Circumstance”) also stars in the film.
Lensed in 2010, the $2 million pic took 3 years to be post-produced, partly due to the fact that it was lensed on four Red One cameras with 220 hours of footage, but above all due to its ambitious special effects – given that of the film’s 3000 shots, 600 involve VFX.
As the screening ended in the Place Jemaa el Fna, the spotlight moved to the plush setting of the Palais des Congres – as local and international celebrities walked the red carpet for a ceremony in tribute to veteran Moroccan actor, Mohamed Khouyi – whose long list of film, TV and theatre roles includes Radu Mihaileanu’s “The Source”.
Khouyi broke into a spontaneous dance as he received a standing ovation.
The award was presented by fellow actor Mohamed Bastaoui, who also received a career trib in 2011.
The audience was clearly reveling in the chance to celebrate their homegrown stars and the ceremony included several moments of joyful chanting in homage to Khouyi.
The party atmosphere continued when local actor and director Said Naciri came on stage to present his latest comedy-melodrama, “Sara”.
Although the names of the directors of “Kanyamakan” and “Sara” are virtually identical there’s no family connection.
53-year old Said Naciri – who studied in the US – is an extremely popular comedy actor-director who has produced some of the country’s biggest box office hits, including “The Clandestine” and “A Moroccan in Paris”.
He jocularly quipped before the film: “Even if you don’t like the film, please don’t leave”.
The plea was clearly unnecessary since the audience was profoundly amused and moved by the social comedy, set in Agadir, about a poor man (played by Naciri) and his adopted daughter, Sara, who are given shelter by a rich young businesswoman.
Both “Kanyamakan” and “Sara” are playing in the Marrakech fest’s Cinema at Heart sidebar, together with Hicham Lasri’s “They are the Dogs” and Mohammed Ahed Bensouda’s “Behind Closed Doors”.
A further 3 films involving Moroccan settings or talent are screening in Official Competition – Hicham Ayouch’s “Fevers”, Sean Gullette’s “Traitors” and Nabil Ben Yadir’s “La Marche” – thus demonstrating the increasingly solid presence of Moroccan films in the Marrakech film festival.