Always a colorful occasion — blessed by winter sun and the Red City’s unique blend of art deco and Moorish charms — this year’s 11th Marrakech Film Festival includes showcases of Mexican and Moroccan cinema, via a country tribute to Mexico and a record six national films in the fest line-up, including Marrakech’s openers and closers.

Fest VPs Noureddine Sail and Faical Laraichi are delighted by fest’s growing maturity and the opportunity to highlight local talent.

“The vision of his majesty (King Muhammad VI) when he created the festival in 2001 was to help Moroccan cinema,” says Laraichi. “It takes time to develop mentalities.

“This year we’re seeing the results of this process. The fest offers a window on world cinema and is bulwarking the domestic film industry.”

“This year is the first time I’ve seen so many strong films from Morocco,” says fest artistic director Bruno Barde. “Just as Cannes helped French cinema and Berlin helped German cinema, Marrakech has aided Moroccan cinema and is now reaping the fruits.”

The fest opens with Narjiss Nejjar’s thwarted love story “The Rif Lover” and closes with Faouzi Bensaidi’s noir heist movie “Death for Sale.”

There are also four Moroccan films in the fest’s Coup de Coeur sidebar: Leila Kilani’s “On the Edge,” Hisham Lasri’s “The End,” Ahmed Boulane’s homecoming drama “The Return of the Son” and Mohamed Nadif’s emigration comedy “Andalusia, My Love!”

Red carpet guests include helmers jury prexy Emir Kusturica, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Roland Joffe, Terry Gilliam, Marco Bellocchio and Roschdy Zem, plus thesps Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Chastain, Diego Luna and Maya Sansa.

Many are returning to Marrakech, which highlights the seductive appeal of the fest’s informal family-style network that has been nurtured since 2001 by its director, Melita Toscan du Plantier.

The 15-film competitive official selection includes 11 debut features.

“I’m drawn towards first films because they’re often more radical, demanding and rigorous,” Barde says. “They tend to exude greater urgency, emotional violence, power and strength.”

Barde says this year’s selection “reflects a world in a state of deep distress.”

The titles competing for Marrakech’s Gold Star for best film — the honor includes a $50,000 Moroccan TV rights deal from pubcaster SNRT — are among others, Amir Hossein Saghafi’s Iranian retribution pic “Death Is My Profession,” Montxo Armendariz’s child-abuse drama “Don’t Be Afraid,” Michale Boganim’s Chernobyl disaster piece “Land of Oblivion,” Mark Jackson’s caregiver drama “Without,” Cyril Mennegun’s slice-of-life tale “Louise Wimmer,” Frederikke Aspock’s island melodrama “Out of Bounds” and Justin Kurzel’s serial-killer pic “Snowtown.”

The out-of-competition section, focusing on more mainstream features by established directors, includes Annaud’s oil-feud epic “Black Gold,” Ami Canaan Mann’s crime drama “Texas Killing Fields,” Nobuhiro Yamashita’s political thriller “My Back Pages” and Cristina Comencini’s disturbed mother tale “When the Night.”

Mexico receives this year’s country tribute, given the strength of its films over the past decade.

Fest VP Faical Laraichi points out that Mexican culture is by no ways alien to Moroccans and says Mexican telenovelas are actually some of the most popular shows on Moroccan television.

The 25-person Mexican delegation includes directors Pablo Aldrete, Alejandro Gerber Bicecci, Everardo Valerio Gout and Rigoberto Perezcano; thesps Luna and Stephanie Sigman; producer Jaime Romandia; and agent Jorge Mondragon.

The Mexican tribute includes Pablo Aldrete’s Western “River of Gold” in official selection, Gerardo Naranjo’s explosive blockbuster “Miss Bala,” Gout’s loco crime epic “Days of Grace,” Carlos Carrera’s priest temptation pic “Crime of Father Amaro,” Arturo Ripstein’s lush melodrama “The Virgin of Lust” and four titles from the Three Amigos: Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y tu mama tambien” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Amores perros” and “Biutiful.”

Master classes are a regular feature at Marrakech, and always bring a high turnout of students from local film schools including those from the plush ESAV Marrakech film school founded in 2007 and godfathered by Martin Scorsese.

Helmers providing master classes this year are Annaud, Joffe, Terry Gilliam, Bellocchio and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Student filmmakers from Morocco’s budding network of film schools will compete in the Cinecoles short film competition, which was launched last year and shows 10 films from six schools, with a top film cash prize of $30,000 for the production to make another short. Sigourney Weaver is jury prexy.

This year’s program of open-air screenings in Marrakech’s distinctive Jamaa el Fna square — in the company of fire-eaters, snake charmers and fortune tellers — includes Zem’s Moroccan 2012 Oscar entry, “Omar Killed Me,” Gilliam’s “Doctor Parnassus” and football bio docu “Maradona by Kusturica.”

Sail says within the next four to five years he would like to add a film market at Marrakech, taking advantage of Morocco’s position as a unique cultural crossroads.


The Rif Lover
Opening-night film. 20-year-old girl is jailed for being a drug baron’s lover.
Director: Narjiss Nejjar
Starring: Omar Lotfi, Nadia Kounda

Don’t be Afraid
A young woman tries to come to terms with years of abuse by her father.
Director: Montxo Armendariz
Starring: Michelle Jenner, Lluis Homar, Belen Rueda

River of Gold
Apaches, Mexican settlers and American soldiers have a showdown in 1854.
Director: Pablo Aldrete
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Gonzalo Lebrija

A teenage boy becomes an accomplice in a serial-killing spree in Australia.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris

A young woman becomes caretaker to an old man in a vegetative state.
Director: Mark Jackson
Starring: Joslyn Jensen, Ron Carrier

Death for Sale
Closing-night film. Three friends decide to rob a jewelry store.
Director: Faouzi Bensaidi
Starring: Fehd Benchemsi, Fouad Labiad, Mouchcine Malzi

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