During the gala closing ceremony of the 17th edition of the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival, the Golden Star for best film was awarded to Sudabeh Mortezai for her second feature, “Joy,” about a young Nigerian woman forced into prostitution, which recently won best film at the BFI London Film Festival.

Accepting the prize from actress Monica Bellucci, she said: “I’d like to thank all the people who helped me make the movie, especially all the women who talked to me and told me their stories and helped me write the film, and the actresses who made the film with me. I’m very happy that, with this prize, this untold story will get greater visibility.”

The jury prize went to Lila Avilés’ debut feature, “The Chambermaid,” about Eve, a maid in Mexico City’s Hotel Presidente Internacional, which Avilés describes as a “high-class prison.”

Avilés said: “I love Patti Smith. She says that she always follows a romantic path and that guide is her light. I hope I am that kind of woman. You have everything here in Marrakech – the mountains, the desert, the people, the handmade things. Everything.”

The award of Marrakech’s top two prizes to women filmmakers reflects the rising power of women’s voices in world cinema: Avilés is one of Mexico’s new wave of women directors and Mortezai is an Austrian filmmaker of Iranian extraction, who studied film in Vienna and UCLA, and also won multiple awards with her debut film “Macondo.”

Best direction prize went to Ognjen Glavonic’s austere debut feature “The Load,” set in Kosovo in 1999. The helmer said he was left speechless by the prize.

Nidhal Saadi won best male actor for Tunisian family drama “Look at Me,” by Nejib Belkadhi, about a man torn between his roots in Tunisia and his new life in Marseille. Visibly moved he said: “I’m very proud and honored, for this prize for my first film role. Before becoming an actor, I cried. I slept in the streets. I did every odd job you can imagine. Which gave me the resources to be able to be considered for this prize. Long live Tunisia, the cinema and Marrakech!”

Best female actor was awarded to Aenne Schwarz for her powerful performance in German drama “All Good” by Eva Trobisch, about a woman’s response to sexual assault. She said: “All of us here are really lucky, but perhaps this luck comes with responsibility, let us be passionate, curious and let us not be afraid and most important of all let us have compassion with the people who aren’t as lucky as us.”

The jury was presided by U.S. director James Gray, who said the decision was tough: “We saw a lot of great movies. I’m really happy about the winners, but all the films had a very high quality. I try to absorb what I can from each film. I think with my fellow jurors we did a pretty good staying focused on what we thought of each work.”

The other jury members were American actress Dakota Johnson, Indian actress Ileana D’Cruz, Lebanese filmmaker and visual artist Joana Hadjithomas, British director Lynne Ramsay, Moroccan director Tala Hadid, French director Laurent Cantet, German actor Daniel Brühl and Mexican director Michel Franco.

After a pause in 2017, Marrakech returned this year with renewed strength, including a new industry sidebar – the Atlas Workshops – sponsored by Netflix and attended by more than 200 film professionals.

Marrakech had an impressive roster of leading international filmmakers and actors attending the event including Martin Scorsese, who attended for the fifth time.

Scorsese is seen by many as the godfather of the festival, and plays an active role in inviting talent to attend. He has a special relationship with Morocco, reinforced by having lensed films there, such as “Kundun” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

He also played a pivotal role in setting up the ESAV film school in Marrakech and is now reinforcing his ties with the Moroccan Cinematheque, via its new director, Moroccan helmer Narijiss Nejjar.

2018 was the first year that the festival was run directly by the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation and the organizers stated their satisfaction with the event.

The fest’s new artistic director, Christoph Terhechte, former head of the Berlin Film Festival’s avant-garde Forum section, was accompanied by a high-profile team who attracted a record presence of festival programmers and over 10 leading international sales agents to the event.

Ali Haji, the fest’s general coordinator, emphasized that its 2018 edition placed a renewed emphasis on films from Morocco, Africa and the Middle East, which provided 27 of the 80 films screened at the event.

“Following the cancellation of the Dubai film festival, now is the moment to take advantage of this expanding market,” remarked Haji.

The Marrakech Film Festival Foundation, which is presided by Prince Moulay Rachid, brother of King Mohammed VI, has two vice-presidents – Sarim Fassi Fihri, head of the Moroccan Cinema Center, and Faical Laraichi, CEO of the pubcaster SNRT.

Fassi Fihri emphasized the success of the Atlas Workshops and said he was delighted to have Netflix as official sponsor of this sidebar, complemented by the fact that Netflix films, such as Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” screened at the fest.

“Netflix’s involvement with the festival is a very good start. We’re very happy that this has happened in Morocco,” said Fassi Fihri. “Streaming platforms offer another way to produce – to shoot more quickly, cheaper and achieve quality and above all have access to a much bigger audience. It’s the future – especially for young people.”

Melita Toscan du Plantier, adviser to Prince Moulay Rachid for the festival, reinforced this idea: “Netflix expressed great interest in supporting the fest when I first met them in July. This part of the world is so important for them. They want to produce content in Arabic and work with local talent and are on the lookout for new directors. They are very cutting edge and were very excited right away. We’re very happy about this relationship.”

“It was very important to take a pause in 2017,” adds Faical Laraichi. “We’ve fine-tuned the event rather than launch a new paradigm. We needed to reinforce our vision as a festival open to the cinemas of the world, with a very special focus on Arab and African cinema, which are emerging cinemas with a rich source of new stories and filmmaking talent.”

Terhechte says that he is delighted with his first edition as artistic director, in particular the enthusiastic reaction from local audiences.

“One of the most emotional moments for me were the special screenings for school children from Marrakech, some of whom were watching a film in a cinema for the first time,” he says. “We showed films to 3,000 kids in five days, it was a profoundly moving experience. In Europe, we’ve become somewhat blasé about watching films. Here you could see the delight on their faces.”

Terhechte emphasized that Marrakech works as a festival because it is directed toward the audience. “We’re not doing the fest so that people can stay in five-star hotels. Of course, without stars the festival could never have the same impact. But I’m doing it above all for the audience. You need the popular participation, that’s also my experience from Berlin. We’ve had amazing reactions across all our venues, including the open-air screenings in the Place Jemaa el Fna.”

To encourage the link between the audience and the filmmakers, Terhechte insisted on presentations before each film by the filmmakers and Q&A sessions afterwards, which were a major innovation in this year’s edition. Many filmmakers interviewed by Variety said how surprised they were, by the lively and thoughtful questioning.

“It’s very important to organize real encounters,” says Terhechte. “That’s why filmmakers come from places as far as China. They want to find out how local audiences react. We’ve been overwhelmed. During the opening weekend I thought it was more normal. But we’ve had so many people turn up throughout the week. It’s as if we were in Berlin or Toronto. I really can’t believe it.”

The festival ran Nov. 30 – Dec. 8.