Marrakech Fest Highlights Diversity of Moroccan Cinema

One Moroccan film plays Official Selection, five the Cinema at Heart sidebar

In its early going, the Marrakech Film Festival, founded in 2001, remained relatively distant from Morocco’s still-fragile domestic film industry.

But in the interim years, public funding for national films has increased tenfold; since mid-last-decade, Moroccan films have more than held their own at the domestic box office: In recent years, over half the top-10 films at the annual box office have been locally produced.

Morocco’s new filmmaking generation — including Nabil Ayouch, Leila Kilani, Narjiss Nejjar, Faouzi Bensaïdi and Nour-Eddine Lakhmari — have made the cut at prestigious film festivals. Ayouch’s latest, “Horses of God” was Morocco’s official foreign-language Oscar entry and received major backing from U.S. helmer Jonathan Demme.

As domestic films have grown in maturity, popularity and international appeal, the Marrakech Festival – one of the biggest cultural events in Africa and the Arab world – has also opened its doors to local films, including pics in Competition, the Cinema at Heart sidebar and the Cinecoles short film competition.

“Horses of God” screened in 2012 at Marrakech, where Jonathan Demme saw it, and met Ayouch, after which he began talks to be its official presenter in the U.S. market. In 2013, Mohamme Ahed Bensouda’s sexual harassment drama “Behind Closed Doors” and Said Naciri’s comedy “Sara” also screened at the fest, going on to become two top 2014 box office titles.

The range of local films playing at the 14th Marrakech Fest underscores once again the growing maturity and diversity of Moroccan cinema. Variety interviewed three of the Moroccan directors at the fest.

MOHAMED MOUFTAKIR: ‘THE BLIND MEN’S BAND’
Mohamed Mouftakir’s sophomore pic, “L’Orchestre des aveugles” (The Blind Men’s Band), is one of 15 films playing in the Official Selection at Marrakech. Mouftakir studied film directing and screenwriting in France and worked extensively as an assistant director. His debut, “Pegasus,” won multiple prizes at the 2010 Tangier National Film Festival, including best film.

“Band” is a French-Moroccan co-production between Mouftakir’s Chama Film and Emmanuel Prévost’s Avalanche Productions in France. Prévost has an extensive track record in producing French animation and live-action projects. He was head of animation at Gaumont, producing series such as “Dragon Flyz” and “Le Magicien.” He then founded Avalanche Productions and produced Olivier Mégaton’s “Exit,” Luc Besson’s “Arthur”  the animation series “Valérian et Laureline” and Olivier Van Hoofstadt’s “Go Fast.”

Prévost shot some of “Go Fast” in Morocco and was invited to the 2011 Tangier National Film Festival by the former CCM topper, Nour-Eddine Sail. He saw “Pegasus” and decided to embark on a new adventure – producing his first Moroccan feature film.

“I was a bit bored in film terms,” he explains. “I was looking for a director who could move me. I loved ‘Pegasus’ and started talking with Mohamed, who recounted some of his childhood stories, and I realized that we had to make the movie.”

“Morocco is a country of cinema,” he continues. “It’s the most active film producer in Africa, has a mix of local and international talent, and a regular flow of international productions.”

“Band” is a partly autobiographical film set in Morocco in the 1970s in the period of tight social control known as the “Years of Lead.” Mouftakir believes that one core element underpinning the film is his relationship with his father. “In the film, I managed to say things to my father than I never managed to say in real life.”

During the Years of Lead, men and women in Morocco tended not to mingle on social occasions. There were also very few female musicians. As a result, in conservative high society, women would hire bands formed exclusively by blind musicians, in order to be able to relax and let their hair down without being under a man’s gaze.

“Band” is about a father, played by well-known Moroccan actor Younes Megri, who works in a fake blind men’s band, and his son, played by Ilyas El Jibani, who fakes his notes at school in order to please his dad. In such a scenario of false representations, the pic recounts a coming-of-age tale that also revels in bittersweet nostalgia for1970s Morocco.

TALA HADID: ‘THE NARROW FRAME OF MIDNIGHT’
Tala Hadid’s “The Narrow Frame of Midnight,” produced by Khadija Alami — who received a career trib at Marrakech on Thursday — is playing in the Cinema at Heart sidebar. The pic’s other producers include Danny Glover. “Midnight” has also played at Toronto, Rome, Stockholm and the BFI London Film Festival and next screens in Dubai. Paris-based Wide Management handles world sales.

Hadid, 39, was born in London of a Moroccan mother and Iraqi father. Her childhood was spent between the U.K. and Morocco. She studied philosophy and film at Brown and Columbia in the U.S.and has lived in New York over the last 15 years. In November 2014 she moved to Marrakech.

At the age of 18, she directed the documentary “Sacred Poet.” about the late Italian film director Pier Paulo Pasolini, for which she interviewed many of his friends and colleagues including Pasolini’s muse Laura Betti and helmer Bernardo Bertolucci. She then worked as an assistant on Michael Radford’s “Il Postino.” Her short “Your Dark Hair Ihsan” received a student Academy Award in 2005 and best short at the Berlinale Panorama in 2006.

“Midnight” is lensed by Alexander Burov, also the cinematographer of Alexander Sokurov. The title derives from Walter Benjamin’s “The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” and the chink in time that exists at midnight through which spirits can enter the real world.

Hadid views her film as a kind of road movie, in which the characters travel from Morocco to Baghdad, thus spanning the geographical region between the native countries of her mother and father.

She says that Morocco inspires as the locus of many of her childhood memories. “Morocco is very close to Europe and has always been at a crossroads. It has so many rich colors, traditions, stories and poetic expression. I love the sounds of nature, the call to prayer, the sound of the wind. I think that zones that live on the periphery of capitalism offer tremendous creative inspiration. I love border zones.”

She is also currently working on a Jean Rouch-style documentary shot in southern Morocco, partly funded by the Peter S. Reed art foundation in New York.

MOHAMED KARRAT: ‘A SPICY BET’
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Mohamed Karrat’s comedy “Un Pari Pimenté” (A Spicy Bet) is a crowd-pleasing comedy about two young men who live in the European-style skiing resort Ifrane, high in the mid-Atlas mountains. They make a bet that one of them can get a date with a famous actress, Yasmine, played by Moroccan star Asmaa Khamlichi, who is staying in the town.

Karrat studied visual effects in Paris and began working as a digital VFX supervisor. He created and directed the fantasy TV series “Boued al Akhar,” Morocco’s first major genre series, which screened on pubcaster 2M and garnered major kudos at the Cairo Festival.

His debut feature “N8ar Tzad Tfa Dow” (Alter Ego) also included extensive f/x. After three years in post-production, it went on to top the Moroccan box office in 2011. He has high hopes that his romantic comedy “Un Pari pimenté” will also woo local audiences.

Karrat believes that the Marrakech Fest has become an essential marketing tool in the release of new Moroccan films. “Getting our films premiered in Marrakech is our main priority,” he suggests. “It is a very big little step towards getting our films known.”

Karrat also notes the new trend in Morocco of producing genre films, moving beyond the former dichotomy of either auteur films or local comedies. Although his own film is also a comedy, he believes that it includes romcom genre elements that distinguish it from traditional Moroccan comedies, such as Said Naciri’s “Sara.”

“Before, we used to make either auteur films or comedies. Now, we’re developing newer and deeper relationships with the audience, in which we can talk about social issues facing Morocco, but in a way that can attract a broad audience.”

He wants to show the isolation of many of the country’s stars. “Moroccan media has recently adopted Western models of prying into the social lives of stars, in search of scandals, which has created situations of incredible solitude.”

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