Moroccan fest touts local production

Marrakech event has foreign filmmaking subtext

MARRAKECH, Morocco — The second Marrakech Film Fest closed Sunday, 10 days after workers broke ground on a local film studio financed by Universal, Fox and Dino Di Laurentiis.

On Wednesday, the opening day of the fest, jury prexy Jeanne Moreau cited Andre Malraux — “the cinema is a dream that can reconciliate people in a murderous world” — after musicians from a dozen regions of the country welcomed participants to the dramatically lit ruins of the 16th century Palais El Badii.

Moreau presented Francis Ford Coppola with a career award in the presence of a smattering of international talent that included Catherine Deneuve, Costa-Gavras and David Lynch, who received a similar homage later in the week.

Chris and Paul Weitz presented “About a Boy,” as the opening-night competition pic.

Matt Dillon’s directorial debut “City of Ghosts” premiered during the fest.

The competition aspect of the Marrakech fest is clearly not the $2 million event’s most important. The majority of competing pics had already debuted in other international venues, and it’s the rare film buff who’s even heard of the Golden Star, the fest’s top prize.

From the rhetoric spouted by everyone from King Mohammed VI’s economic adviser to the hotel guide who was an extra in “The Man Who Would Be King,” the fest’s subtext was the marketing of Morocco as the next best film location.

The fest’s hiring of Daniel Toscan de Plantier, the indefatigable Unifrance topper, to run the show again this year means the government has its fingers crossed he will do for filmmaking in Morocco what he has already done for French film promotion around the world.

Baz Luhrmann, a partner in the new studio, located in Ouarzazate in southern Morocco, is one of several filmmakers already sold on the location; he will shoot “Alexander the Great” there at the end of 2003.

“Sixty million dollars of the film’s $150 million budget will be invested in the country,” Souheil Ben Barka, head of the Moroccan Film Center told Daily Variety. Ben Barka added that $15 million of the $60 million De Laurentiis production “The Last Legend” will also be spent in Morocco.

“The light in Morocco is spectacular,” said L.A.-based Italian Vogue photographer Michel Haddi, a Moroccan. “New Yorkers shoot in Miami. Europeans shoot in Morocco.”

But its not only the light — which when filtered by the sand rising from the desert floor makes for dazzling cinematography — that’s drawn the crews of “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down” and other productions that have poured $200 million into the economy of this poor nation since 2000.

Ben Barka said other incentives to shoot in Morocco include an exoneration of the 20% Euro VAT tax on all goods and services, use of the Royal military and National Police, same-day custom clearance for equipment and 300 rain-free days a year.

All 1,500 of Morocco’s below-the-line film technicians work constantly, though preferably on foreign pics on which they earn five to six times more than on Moroccan productions, which now number a dozen a year.

“We’ve had a renaissance of national cinema,” said Andre Azoulay, the King’s economic adviser and veep of the Marrakech Fest Foundation.

The Marrakech fest is essentially a public event, with hundreds of movies and shorts shown at venues as spectacular as the El Badii or the gigantic Jemaa El Fna square, where women behind veils got the chance to giggle at films they’d rarely see otherwise, such as “Bend It Like Beckham” or “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”