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Marrakech Fest Highlights the Power of Cinema as Resistance

Coppola leaves an indelible mark on the fest’s 15th edition

Marrakech Fest Highlights Cinema’s Power as a Force of Resistance
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty

MARRAKECH — The 15th edition of the Marrakech film festival, held three weeks after the attacks in Beirut, Paris and San Bernardino, bore echoes of the fest’s first edition in 2001, that took place in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

“In 2001, well before I became involved with the fest, everyone predicted that it would be cancelled,” explains the Fest’s artistic director, Bruno Barde. “I think that it was a tremendous act of courage that the King refused to cancel and that the guests came to the festival. This year, in different circumstances, but also in a context of widespread fear, filmmakers demonstrated that they would not be swayed by terror, starting with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray. I think that has been one of the key messages from this year’s edition.”

Security was ramped up for this year’s 15th edition, and many attendees viewed their presence as not only a celebration of cinema, which is inherent to any film festival, but as a demonstration of resistance.

The theme of fear contrasting with the power of cinema to foster hope and bring people together, was one of the key undercurrents of this year’s fest.

Bill Murray kicked off the opening ceremony with reference to the turmoil shaking Europe, the U.S. and the Arab world: “My heart is heavy because of the events in Paris, my heart is heavy because of the events in San Bernardino. Each and every man and woman here on this planet is a manifestation of God and to that end we must all work.”

In the jury press conference on the following day, prexy Francis Ford Coppola Coppola quoted from the Coran: “The first words are, I think, “In the name of God, the gracious and the merciful, Praise be to God, the most gracious, the most merciful. Graciousness and mercy are repeated twice in the first page. These words are the roots of that beautiful religion. And we trust that God will deliver us from this misunderstanding, from this horrible thing that is hurting people. God doesn’t want people to get hurt, God is gracious and merciful.”

Jury member, Sergio Castellitto admitted that he was initially hesitant to come to Marrakech in light of the recent attacks but reinforced that coming to the fest was “an act of resistance, a political gesture.”

Initial nervousness about travelling to Marrakech was shared by several guests. There was a small number of cancellations – Norman Jewison and Thomas Vinterberg, for example – and a smaller presence of journalists.

French helmer Jean-Pierre Jeunet also said that the terror attacks had made him fearful. “Sadly, I think a Kalashnikov has more power than a camera today,” he admitted.

Indian actress and jury member Richa Chadda nonetheless reminded journalists that terrorism attacks are a constant facet of life in her home country. This theme was also echoed in many key events during the fest, such as the Canadian tribute on Sunday evening and the masterclasses, between Monday and Wednesday.

During the Canada trib, Sarim Fassi Fihri, president of the Moroccan Cinema Center, awarded the tribute, emphasizing that Morocco and Canada both have two languages, but beat with a single heart, based on a spirit of welcoming others with generosity. Helmer Atom Egoyan received the award and stated that Canadians are born from diversity and that the national cinema’s creativity is directly linked to its multi-cultural mix.

German-Turkish helmer, Fatih Akin – in the masterclass on the following day – admitted that “I used to think that a film can change the world, just like rock n’roll has changed the world. But I now realize that one film can’t do that.”

Nonetheless, he did state that making films – in particular “The Cut” about the Armenian genocide in Turkey – had changed his own outlook: “As I grew up, I used to think that the Holocaust had nothing to do with me or my parents, because I wasn’t born at the time and they didn’t live in Germany. But while making ‘The Cut,’ I realized that I had equal responsibility for both genocides. Also for the genocides in Laos, in Algeria and in North and South America. Whenever one group of human beings gangs up to kill another group.”

Korean helmer Park Chan-Wook who gave a masterclass and received a career trib at Marrakech also explained how his experiences as a young man had an impact on his filmmaking:  “I grew up during the period of Korean history when there were major student movements in favor of democracy. I saw a lot of my friends taken away by the authorities and many were tortured. Others were forced to enlist in the army well before the obligatory age of conscription, as a punishment. I saw them fight actively against the dictatorship and they suffered as a consequence. I didn’t take an active part and I felt guilty about this. A lot of people from my generation share this feeling. I channeled this sense of guilt into my films.”

Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, who gave the final masterclass echoed the idea that filmmakers can generate hope and new directions in the face of adversity: “Whenever there are restrictions, there is more energy to fight these restrictions.”

Barde believes that the power of cinema is that it can change the way we see the world: “Art can change the world because it can change mankind. Cinema can change people through the emotions that it arouses in audiences as they watch the film. Cinema helps us understand our fellow man, and at the present moment in time this is increasingly important.” He considers that one of the key roles played by a festival such as Marrakech is to bring people together and cites the words of Martin Luther King, who said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”.

“Mankind is caught between his fears and his values,” says Barde. “Our key fear is that of death, but our key value is the celebration of life. Art is essentially about the genius of life and art is man’s essential ally in living. Art has to focus on the questions that make us uncomfortable and go beyond mere issues of entertainment or passing the time. Great filmmakers see this quality in the audience. They never take the spectator for a fool.”

As artistic director, Barde orchestrates the overall balance of each fest, which consistently reflects an eclectic approach towards cinema. “I see over a thousand films per year and for me the most important aspect of a film is its mise-en-scene and what the film has to say to mankind,” he explains. “I always remember Truffaut’s saying that a good film has a view on the world and a view on cinema.”

“I’m interested in auteurs, but I have a very broad taste,” he adds. “For me, James Cameron is a tremendous auteur, in the same league as directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn. The Marrakech Festival reflects this broad perspective. The people I invite here all share a boundless love for cinema.”

Barde considers that this year’s edition has sent out an important message to the world. “This year’s emphatic success, only a few weeks after the terrible terrorist attacks around the world, highlights the sense of hope that an event such as this can propagate.”

CCM prexy, Fassi Fihri concurs: “I adore this festival,” he explains. “This year has been a tremendous success, with three excellent master classes, and wonderful films in competition that have played to full houses and have been warmly applauded.”

Fassi Fihri believes that the choice of Francis Ford Coppola was a key ingredient in the success of this year’s edition. “Organizing a festival is a bit like making a film, the atmosphere depends a great deal on the personality of the jury president. Coppola has brought a great family feeling to the event, and has even offered to cook a meal for the jury members on the penultimate evening. What more can you ask from a jury president!”

Not only did Coppola cook a pasta meal for jury members on Friday evening, Italian helmer Sergio Castellito prepared an accompanying risotto dish.

Barde echoes Fassi Fihri’s sentiments: “Organising a festival has many parallels with making a film. You spend all year writing the script, but when it comes to the production period, the jury president is like the director, and he creates the overall atmosphere for the festival.”

Looking ahead to next year’s edition, Barde aims to reinforce the industry ties of the event, which this year has included two workshops, by Europa Distribution and Europa International, and features an industry meet between distributors and sales agents and professionals from the Moroccan film industry.

Barde would like to build on these initiatives: “I think that an economic dimension is important above all because it can foster co-productions that provide an alternative source of financing and enables films to avoid being mere products made for TV. One of the biggest problems facing the international film industry at present is that way that TV financing has undermined the originality of films being produced.”

“My first goal was to affirm the cultural presence of the festival, but since Martin Scorsese served as jury president two years ago, this has been unquestionably established and was reaffirmed last year under Isabelle Huppert and has been further reinforced this year under Coppola. We can now also extend the economic dimension of the event, first and foremost with the Moroccan film industry and then with the rest of Africa and the Arab world.”

The closing ceremony of the 15th Marrakech film festival will be held on Saturday evening, and will announce the Golden Star awards for best film, best actor and actress and Jury Prize for best director, – out of the 15 films playing in Official Competition.