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Marrakech Artistic Chief Christoph Terhechte on Reinvigorating Festival

After taking a pause last year, the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival returns this with a new artistic director – Christoph Terhechte, former head of the Berlin Film Festival’s avant-garde Forum section, who was appointed in June. Terhechte has revamped this year’s edition, welcoming some of the festival’s oldest friends, including Martin Scorsese, complemented by new ventures such as the Atlas Workshops, sponsored by Netflix, that aims to nurture upcoming Arab filmmakers. Terhechte’s Marrakech programming team includes Ali Hajji, the fest’s former general coordinator; Rasha Salti, selector for various festivals, including Abu Dhabi and Toronto; film critic Anke Leweke, member of Berlin’s selection committee since 2002; and Remi Bonhomme, general coordinator of the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week. In this exclusive interview with Variety, Terhechte talks about the 17th edition of the festival, which bowed Friday, and runs until Dec. 8.

The 2018 lineup is impressive with many old friends of the festival, such as Martin Scorsese and James Gray, attending. What were the main challenges and surprises in putting together this year’s edition?
Without a doubt, our biggest challenge was time. We had just five months to put together a new team, define an editorial line for the festival, and create a new structure and selection process. The selection team has been working from Beirut, Berlin, Casablanca, and Paris to make this happen, and my fellow programmers and I went to Beijing, Busan, Cairo, Karlovy Vary, New York City, Locarno, San Sebastián, Tokyo, Toronto, Tunis, and Venice to select films for the competitive and non-competitive sections. The festival staff has been amazing, and both the experienced and new members have formed a real team in no time. Even though the 2017 festival edition was put on hold, we have been able to build upon the reputation Marrakech gained over its first 16 editions, and the support we received from the international film industry was very encouraging.

The festival has carved out an identity as a meeting place for world cinema. Last year the foundation said it wanted a one-year pause to “allow the festival to advance its mission not only to promote Moroccan cinema, but also to open up to other cultures.” How is this goal reflected in the 2018 edition?
It was clear to me from the get-go that we should create a festival for the Moroccan public. Marrakech is a perfect meeting place for filmmakers from all over the world, and we want to further the festival’s reputation as an indispensable hub for the regional film industry – but to really matter, a film festival needs to reach out to its public. If we invite filmmakers to travel around the world to attend the festival, we want them to have meaningful encounters with local audiences, engage in debate, and encounter new perspectives. Openness is key to the vitality of a film festival.

One of our new initiatives is a program of films for youth. We have been working with public schools in Marrakech and its surroundings to encourage teachers to bring their classes to the festival, and I am pleased that the demand has greatly surpassed our expectations. More than 3,000 children are confirmed to attend these screenings, and many of them will have the opportunity to watch a film in a proper cinema for the first time in their lives.

Morocco had a popular film culture until the 1970s, and families regularly went to the movies, but there is very little left of this tradition. The festival is also an attempt to revive that culture. Another addition to the program is a Moroccan Panorama, with a selection of seven films released this year. We want our international guests to discover the best of recent Moroccan cinema, but I am sure these screenings will also be popular with local audiences.

Having served as head of the Berlin Intl. Film Festival’s avant-garde Forum section, how has this shaped your work as the fest’s new artistic director, in relation to the Official Competition and other sections?
Programming the avant-garde section of the Berlinale has never kept me from being interested in popular cinema, and in fact it was at the Forum that we introduced many Hong Kong action films and Bollywood to Western audiences. Marrakech gives me the opportunity to continue to pursue those interests.

We are showing popular Moroccan films, star-studded U.S. cinema, Bollywood and Egyptian melodrama in outdoor screenings on the magical Jemaa El Fna square in the heart of the city, reconnecting with the origins of cinema, which were all about enchantment and wonder. Our competition focuses on art-house films by young directors – all of the 14 titles are first or second features by directors who show astounding talent.

And we have added a new section to the festival called The 11th Continent, which is dedicated to artistic, personal, and challenging films. This is our terra incognita, a place to discover films that are out of the ordinary. With the small theater in the beautiful Musée Yves Saint Laurent, which opened in Marrakech a year ago, we found the perfect location for this new program.

What are the main personal challenges associated to programming one of the biggest cultural events in the Arab and African world?
When I arrived at the Forum in Berlin, I could rely on an educated audience of cinephiles, which my predecessors had built over the previous three decades. The challenge in Marrakech is to build that kind of an audience. We need to encourage cinephiles to embrace the festival, and at the same time we have to reach out to new audiences.

Since we arrived in the city, I have been touring universities and film schools in Marrakech with the artistic team, encouraging students to register for festival badges and advertising the film program. We have had great encounters with young and eager students, who will hopefully spread the word and become loyal festival-goers. Building an audience will no doubt remain our biggest challenge in the future. It’s a humbling experience, and I have the greatest respect for the people I have met, who run film theaters and small festivals all over Morocco with remarkable patience and enthusiasm.

Does the fact that the Dubai Intl. Film Festival has been switched to a bi-annual event reinforce Marrakech’s position as a key platform for Arab cinema?
[Marrakech] is a truly international festival, and we want to keep it that way. However, any worthy festival needs to be anchored in its region, so the cinema of both the Middle East and the African continent must have a strong presence in our festival, with a special focus on Moroccan films, of course. Certainly, we have the opportunity to welcome many guests from the Arab world this year who were regulars in Dubai, but we are by no means trying to copy the recipe of that festival.

The Atlas Workshops, sponsored by Netflix, reinforces the festival’s industry dimension. What are your expectations for this year’s workshops and how do you see this industry dimension developing over the future?
The Atlas Workshops are taking a new and different approach to embedding industry programming in the festival. The idea is to empower the local filmmakers and film industry, rather than creating yet another project market. The focus is on training, education, exchange, and debate.

Whatever we do has to respond to demand. There is no need to build castles in the air. We will listen to filmmakers, producers, and distributors, and we will work closely with them to provide them with the platforms they need.

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