MARRAKECH, Morocco — Laila Marrakchi, Narjiss Nejjar and Leila Kilani are among the diverse pool of femme directors making strides and powering up Moroccan cinema’s coming of age.

As Sally Shafto, a film scholar and writer, points out, Morocco may not be a democracy and the literacy rate nears 70%, but the facts speak for themselves: “In 14 editions of the National Film Festival, three Moroccan women directors — Laïla Kilani (“On the Edge”), Yasmine Kassar (“The Sleeping Child”) and Fatima Jebil Ouazzani (“In My Father’s House”) — have won top awards and that’s pretty impressive considering that out of 85 Academy Awards ceremonies, Kathryn Bigelow is the first and only woman who ever won a best director award, for ‘Hurt Locker.'”

Added Shafto, “In France, Jane Campion is the only female director who won a Palme d’Or at Cannes, and it goes back to 1993 with ‘The Piano.'”

Speaking during a Marrakech Film Festival press conference, Nejjar, who serves on Martin Scorsese’s jury, concurred. “The simple fact that we’re all here sharing our beliefs and exchanging thoughts at this festival underscores the fact that Morocco is a cultural exception within the Muslim world.”

“The local film (biz) started to flourish 13 years ago with the launch of the Marrakech Film Festival, which kicked off a year after the start of King Mohammed VI’s reign, who is a cinephile,” said Bruno Barde, artistic director and co-organizer of the fest, which has two femme-helmed movies in competition. “Today, Moroccan women directors are on the forefront of that emerging industry.”

Indeed, the country counts approximately 15 professional women filmmakers running a wide gamut, according to Noreddine Sail, prexy of Morocco’s film institute, CCM (Center Cinematographique du Maroc), and VP of the Marrakech Film Festival. “These women fought to carve themselves a place within the local film landscape, and they’re all making movies that address serious issues, but in very different ways, and they’re being hailed by critics and prestigious film festivals around the world.”

Recent examples of promising debut or second pics include the following:

  • “On The Edge,” the feature debut of documentary filmmaker Leila Kilani, is a Tangier-set crime drama centering on the lives of two struggling twentysomething women working in a shrimp packaging factory who turn to theft to make ends meet. Pic world preemed at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight.
  •  “Cry No More” (“Les yeux secs”), the debut of Nejjar, a politically engaged lesbian filmmaker, turns on a former prostitute who comes out of jail after serving a 25-year sentence and fights to not get pulled back into prostitution and to put an end to the sex-work cycle. It also opened at Director’s Fortnight.
  •  “Rock the Casbah,” Marrakchi’s sophomore pic, is a family dramedy centering on three sisters who reunite for their father’s burials. While filled with light touches of humor, “Casbah” questions the weight of traditions and religion in Moroccan society and the status quo of women in Morocco’s upper-class world, as well as touching upon the local rules of inheritance, which are deemed unfair to women. Pic bowed at Toronto.

Marrakchi’s debut, “Marock,” topped the local B.O. in 2004 and sparked a controversy in Morocco because it centered on an illicit romance between a young Muslim girl and a Jewish boy.

A sign of Moroccan’s rising generation of female filmmakers, Cinecoles, the Marrakech film festival’s sidebar featuring student shorts, is split between films from men and women.

“Our patriarchal society is slowly dying as women of this country increasingly play a key role in the institutions, in the media and in film,” said Cinecoles’ artistic director Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, who’s also a critically hailed director whose credits includes “Zero” and “Casanegra.” “As a cultural crossroads, Morocco holds a special place in the Arab world: It stands on Europe’s doorstep and it’s the gateway to Africa.”

Some film scholars have pointed out a lack of purely entertaining films made in Morocco and the over-abundance of tear-jerking melodramas with alienating themes like prostitution.

“It’s true that we’re not yet making hugely mainstream comedies such as the ones that are being produced in more mature film markets as France; but that’s because we’re still in the first wave of Moroccan filmmaking, where Italy was in the ’50s, so our films are often neo-realist dramas depicting our world, addressing problems, shedding light on people living on the margins.”

Per Farida Benlyazid, Morocco’s first professional woman screenwriter-director-producer, the dearth of mainstream films stems from the scarcity of full-time producers.

“Our film industry isn’t as big as India’s, and we don’t really make commercial films but rather auteur-driven, personal films. The main reason for this is that most films are produced by the auteurs themselves,” explains Benlyazid, who began her career writing and producing Jillali Ferhat’s “Une Breche dans le mur,” which premiered in Cannes, and has produced her own movies since 1991 via Tingitania Films.

While Moroccan filmmakers are being criticized by some for making films lacking mainstream appeal, Marrakchi said “Casbah” got mixed reviews in France because it wasn’t dark enough.

“As an Arab woman filmmaker, people expect you to be a radical auteur and make very serious dramas like ‘A Separation,’ (…) but I grew up watching Hollywood movies and I aim to make popular films that do address serious issues but also feature characters that we can relate to, not necessarily people living on the margins.”

Like “Casbah’s” main character — a Moroccan woman who returns to her homeland after spending three years in the U.S. — Marrakchi said she always feels caught in between two worlds. “In Morocco, people blame me for making films in French, and in France, I’m being told my films are not political enough and don’t show the misery enough.”

Like their male counterparts, women filmmakers have had to look beyond Morocco’s borders to raise financing for their movies. While France is still the No. 1 destination for raising coin, Moroccan helmers, notably Benlyazid and Marrakchi, said Gauls often have limiting expectations.

“French producers tend to favor socially or politically engaged Moroccan films; they’re not looking to back different kinds of movies from Morocco, and that’s becoming a drawback for some directors,” said Benlyazid, who is working on a documentary series dealing with Moroccan cultural heritage, which is co-produced with Spain. She’s just wrapped “Frontieras,” a documentary about the Moroccan Sahara.

Meanwhile, Marrakchi says she’s looking to direct a romantic drama set between the U.S. and France. “I want to feel free to tap into different genres, make films that are pure fiction.”

While Morocco could be the Arab world’s most progressive country, self-censorship is the main threat to freedom of expression, concluded Marrakchi, who had to give up her passion project “Prisonniere,” a highly political film based on Malika Oufkir’s autobiography that she was developing with “The Artist” producer Thomas Langmann, because they weren’t able to raise the financing.