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Actor-director Faouzi Bensaidi is one of Morocco’s most critically acclaimed directors, whose previous pics include Berlin player “Death for Sale” (2011) and Venice entry “Volubilis” (2017). He recently starred in Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven,” and is now planning to direct his next project, “Deserts,” to be shot in the Sahara desert in 2019. Bensaidi attended the Marrakech Film Festival to co-moderate the masterclass with Martin Scorsese. In an exclusive interview with Variety, he explained that he has 40% of the financing in place – with grants from the Moroccan Cinema Center and private equity – and is finalizing a coproduction deal for the pic.

His previous four feature films have had urban settings but for his next film he wants to explore the canvas of Morocco’s deep south, which has been lensed by international filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, David Lean and Ridley Scott, but he believes hasn’t been fully explored by Moroccan filmmakers, who often set their stories in Casablanca or other main urban centers.

“I want to revisit the Western genre, but from a modern angle. Instead of horses there will be cars. I’m interested in exploring the wild side of this part of Morocco, which is a kind of Monument Valley in terms of its iconic presence.”

Bensaidi says that the film will explore certain core themes of the Western genre and will include key emblematic scenes associated to the genre.
“It will be an abstract Western, but not a Spaghetti Western. It will be more existential. Man against himself, against God and against nature and coming to terms with his own interior violence.”

The story begins with two debt collectors in Casablanca who drive to Ouarzazate, on the border of the Sahara desert, to collect a debt. They work on a percentage basis and he says the film pits the poor against the poor.

Bensaidi says that they will be forced to decide whether or not to resort to violence, in a decision that is rendered more complex when an escaped convict turns up on the scene.

“They will travel to a remote mountain Berber village, that feels like it’s still living in the Middle Ages. The local villagers believe in the power of the sacred rocks of the arid mountains – a bit like in a John Ford Western.”

Bensaidi says that he has been thinking for many years about shooting in the zone, after visiting it for the first time in his early twenties.

He plans to shoot in CinemaScope to capture the immense presence of the location.

“In all my previous films space is very important, but in this case the location will gain a special force. I shot my first films in CinemaScope but in my last film, ‘Volubilis,’ I mainly used close ups, because I wanted to magnify the actors. This time I want to explore the rhythm of the wide shot, showing how man can lose himself in space. I want to explore solitude. It has tones of a Greek tragedy, of simple people placed in an extraordinary situation.”

The helmer hasn’t yet decided whether he will also act in the film. The pic will be produced by Saïd Hamich’s Mont Fleuri Production, which also produced “Volubilis.”