Marrakech fest jury prexy, Martin Scorsese, was visibly delighted to screen “Hugo” in Marrakech’s most famous landmark – the world heritage square, Place Jemaa el Fna.
As an ode to storytelling and cinematic magic, “Hugo” had to compete for attentions with the square’s storytellers, fortune-tellers and conjurers who traditionally captivate the locals and visitors in this unique locale.
Fest director Melita Toscan de Plantier first took the stage to introduce “one of the greatest if not the greatest film director in the world.”
Scorsese then waved to the enthusiastic crowd, beaming: “I’m a regular visitor to your country and I’m so happy to be here.”
For many of those attending the open air screening it constituted a rare opportunity to see a major feature film projected on a big screen, and there was a clear sense of excitement as the opening credits came up and the camera swept its way across Paris.
Scorsese has shot two feature films in Morocco – “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 and “Kundun” in 1995 and says he would love to film another.
His “special relationship” with Morocco is further cemented by his personal friendship with the fest’s director, MelitaToscan de Plantier.
“Martin has a deep love of world cinema and a fascination with different world cultures, not only in terms of cinema but also literature and music,” explains Toscan de Plantier.
Other fest participants, such as James Gray and Marion Cotillard, also revealed that Scorsese frequently talks about Morocco and encourages others to film there.
From the launch of the Marrakech film festival in 2001, Scorsese has attended four times – including a career trib in 2005, a master class in 2007, and a whirlwind 24-hour visit during the 10th edition, in 2010, in order to host the tribute to French cinema.
“For the 2010 edition, Martin’s agent was furious with me, because they had to push back the shooting of ‘Hugo’ by one day so that he could attend the fest,” recalls MelitaToscan de Plantier. “But he insisted on coming.”
Scorsese’s love for the country and the Marrakech fest has inevitably endeared him to Moroccans.
In 2005, he received the prestigious al Kafaa al Fikrya decoration from the king, acknowledging intellectual merit.
With the backing of the World Cinema Foundation, in 2007 he also restored the Moroccan documentary Trances (El Hal, 1981) by Ahmed El Maanouni about the traditional band Nass El Ghiwane.
At this year’s fest press conference, after Scorsese’s reference to the importance of his own roots in Italian cinema, Moroccan director Noureddine Lakhmari (“Casanegra”) took up this idea and stated that he felt that current Moroccan films also share a strong tie to Italy, in particular the neo-realist and comedy films produced in the 1950s and early 1960s.
As prexy of the Cinecoles short film competition at this year’s fest, Lakhmari later confided: “It’s a huge honor to be the president of the short films jury when Martin Scorsese is the president of the main jury – he has had a huge impact on me – with films such as Taxi Driver. He brilliantly explores themes of noir, urban loneliness, and how people can go mad in big cities.”
The evident affinity between Scorsese and Morocco perhaps involves deeper cultural factors, including the geographical proximity and historical links between Sicily and Northern Africa. Many cultural traits found in Southern European countries such as Italy are also shared in the countries bordering the Southern Mediterranean – including Morocco.
“I think many of the films we’re producing at the moment in Morocco have direct parallels with Italian cinema of the 1950s – directors such as Fellini, Dino Risi and Ettore Scola” explains helmer Faouzi Bensaidi.
Scorsese saw Bensaidi’s 2012 Berlin-player, “Death for Sale,” and sent him a personal note congratulating him on his “strong, powerful and emotionally-rich film.” The phrase was subsequently used in the film’s marketing campaign during its recent French release.
“There’s a curious triangular link between my film and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’” – explains Bensaidi. “Both films have been compared to Fellini’s 1953 film ‘Il Vitelloni’.”
With these somewhat surprising affinities, local helmers are clearly interested in further exploring this “special relationship.”