MARRAKECH — Turning 14 this year, the Marrakech International Film Festival has matured into a full-fledged fest that not only showcases world cinema highlights but also breeds local talent.
Jeremy Irons, during his career tribute on the second day of events, recalled the attribulated first edition in December 2001, which initially seemed at risk after the 9/11 attacks in New York. He underlined how far the festival has evolved since then.
Brainchild of late French producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the Marrakech fest in its early years were highly influenced by European cinema, in particular by French films. It also showcased Hollywood talent, including self-confessed Moroccophiles, such as Martin Scorsese, who was jury prexy in 2013 and is godfather to the ESAV, Marrakech’s leading film school, which he inaugurated in 2007.
“For me, Morocco and the movies have always gone hand in hand, so when the festival was founded back in 2001, I was eager to help out,” said Scorsese. “But over the years, I’ve seen my friend Melita (Toscan du Plantier) build something very special: a real home for cinema in a beautiful setting, a place where you can relax with friends and do nothing but watch and think about and talk about movies.”
Added Scorsese: “In the film festival world, the emphasis is often on the competition, the business deals, or the glamour. Marrakech has glamour and prizes, but they take a back seat to the movies themselves. That’s very rare.”
Over the years, the fest has progressively reinforced its world cinema pedigree, through its official competition section, which primarily takes first and second films from all continents, and via the country tribute section launched in 2004.
Interviewed by Variety, Toscan du Plantier and Bruno Barde, the festival’s artistic director, said this year’s tribute to Japanese cinema was particularly meaningful because so few Asian movies get released in Morocco. “One of our dearest missions through this festival is to breed a new generation of cinephiles and filmmakers in Morocco, give local audiences a taste of international films and auteurs that matter,” said Toscan du Plantier.
As part of the tribute, the festival invited some of Japan’s top filmmakers, including Hirokazu Kore-eda, who had previously received a career trib in 2013, picking up the homage from the hands of jury president Isabelle Huppert.
“We showed 26 Japanese movies over the course of 12 days, and the screening rooms were packed, which proves that there is a real appetite for foreign cinema here in Morocco,” said Barde.
The master classes — this year provided by Denmark’s Bille August, Spain’s Alex de la Iglesia and France’s Benoit Jacquot — were also packed primarily by local film students, per Barde.
As Morocco’s domestic film industry matures, the fest has also upped its programming of national films. Since 2010 there has consistently been at least one film (this year, Mohamed Mouftakir’s sophomore outing “The Blind Men’s Band”).
Morocco’s film industry is now one of the most stably funded in the Arab world, but Karim Debbagh, producer at Tangier-based Kasbah Films (a co-producer on “A Hologram for the King”), said the scarce presence of local movies in competition underlines the need of the burgeoning Moroccan industry to be better positioned on the international market.
“Moroccan filmmakers and producers need to start making films for the whole world in order to be represented in a major festival, travel to foreign markets and become commercially successful,” Debbagh argued.
He added: “That can only happen through collaborations with international talent, screenwriters and production partners. We need to go out there and work with countries like France, the U.K., Spain and Canada where we have co-production treaties.”
To that end, Toscan du Plantier and Barde are planning to emphasize an industry presence at the festival. Barde one idea is to launch a workshop for Moroccan screenwriters, another is to organize a mini-forum presenting local projects to international producers, distributors and sales agents.
Marrakech has already made baby steps on that path, hosting the annual meeting of sales agents org Europa International for the last two years and welcoming for the first time Europa Distribution, which organized a workshop with a dozen independent distribs.
As one of the leading cultural events in Africa and the Arab world, Marrakech also reinforced its links to other Arab film industries, in particular Egypt’s, with an opening-night career tribute to Egyptian actor Adel Imam and a competition berth for “The Blue Elephant” from Marwan Hamed (“The Yacoubian Building”).
African cinema was also present via Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” which played out of competition. Sissako also presided over the Cinecoles short film competition that aims to unearth new talent from Morocco.
Indian films at Marrakech included Farah Khan’s Bollywood heist movie “Happy New Year,” which screened in Marrakech’s iconic Place Jemaa el Fna, to a crowd of more than 7,000.
Marrakech has become an important meeting ground and promotion board for the local industry. Nabil Ayouch was among Moroccan directors who unveiled his next project at the festival.
Sarim Fassi-Fihri, who heads up the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), organized at the fest a meeting with investors interested in backing new multiplexes in the kingdom, in the hope of reversing the recent — and drastic — slide in admissions.
After welcoming Scorsese, Marion Cotillard and James Grey last year, the fest once again managed — without relying on monetary compensations — to draw an impressive lineup of high-profile actors and directors, such as Huppert, Viggo Mortensen, Melanie Laurent, Benoit Jacquot, Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons.