‘The Gravedigger,’ ‘Zanka Contact’ and ‘Sweet Annoyance’ Win Top Prizes at 2nd Atlas Workshops

Djibouti’s “The Gravedigger,” Morocco’s “Zanka Contact” and Ethiopia’s “Sweet Annoyance” were among the major winners in the post-production and development categories of the second edition of the Marrakech Film Festival’s Atlas Workshops.

“The Gravedigger,” by Khadar Ahmed, and “Zanka Contact,” by Ismaël el Iraki, won the top awards – €20,000 ($22,000) and $11,000 respectively – in the post-production competition, and “The Gravedigger” also won the new $3,300 NAAS prize for film circulation. Both pics are first features.

Ethiopia’s “Sweet Annoyance,” by Hiwot Admasu Getaneh, Morocco’s “The Original Lie,” by Asmae El Moudir, and Rwanda’s “Ikimanuka – Seasons of the Weary Kind,” by Samuel Ishimwe, were the winners in the development competition, and received $11,000, $5,500 and $5,500 respectively.

The new $6,660 Artekino prize attributed during the workshops was awarded to Morocco’s “Les Meutes” by Kamal Lazraq. This is the first time that French-German broadcaster Arte has attributed an award in an African film festival.

$1.2 million “Gravedigger” about a struggling gravedigger in the slums of Djibouti City and his 13-year old runaway son, is a coproduction between Finland, France and Germany.

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Director Khadar Ahmed has been based in Helsinki since the age of 15, but is originally from Somalia. The film was shot in Djibouti, a tiny country next to Ethiopia. “For me having the film made is the biggest prize,” he said to Variety. He describes the film as a “poetic, sensitive film with a sense of humor and a bit of a fairy tale in terms of its layers.”

The $1.2 million “Zanka Contact” is directed by Ismaël El Iraki, who lives between Morocco and Paris. The producer Saïd Hamich also won the development prize for “Les Meutes.” “Zanka,” a French/Belgian/Moroccan coproduction, is about a has-been rocker and a prostitute in Casablanca. It has a strong rock ‘n’ roll vibe, which is unusual for the region and was shot on 35mm. “It’s been great to get input from people at such a high-level,” El Iraki told Variety. “They have a real understanding from the inside, and gave great advice on music and editing. We learned a lot.”

Development winner “Sweet Annoyance” is about love, freedom and women’s emancipation in Addis Ababa. The jury commented that it deals with a subject rarely addressed – “the problem of perfectionism for women that sometimes prevents them from sailing on the river of life.” The $800,000 project is co-produced by Lacey Schwartz in the U.S. and François d’Artemare in France.

The pic’s producer, Mehret Mandefro, is Ethiopian but only recently returned to her country after spending several years producing projects in Los Angeles, including executive producing documentary feature “Little White Lie” and Canadian/Irish coproduction “Sweetness in the Belly,” by Ethiopian director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, starring Dakota Fanning.

“The high-level industry meetings here have been great,” said Mandefro. “It’s been amazing to meet so many sales agents, producers, distributors at this stage of the project. We have a film with definitive cross-over potential. I think it can travel far and wide. Addis Ababa is a modern city with so many things happening. The film will offer a contemporary picture of Africa.”

This year the Atlas Workshops have doubled their number of awards and the corresponding grants, totaling MAD640,000 ($66,000), have risen too as a result of extra funding contributed by the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation.

This is part of a broader strategy to reinforce the workshops’ formal and informal partnerships, to become a key development hub for the Arab and African film industry.

The number of projects discussed at the workshops this year were almost double the level in last year’s first edition, reflecting growing interest in Arab and African cinema for festivals, sales agents and distributors.

Some 270 international professionals attended the event where 28 projects were discussed.

Netflix is the main sponsor of the Atlas Workshops and had three executives attending, headed by Claire Willats, who was also a jury member of the post-production competition.

The other jury members for the two competitions were Lebanese producer Georges Schoucair, Moroccan director Laila Marrakchi, Senegalese producer Oumar Sall, Tunisian producer Chiraz Latiri, and French sales agent Juliette Schrameck.

The Network of Alternative Arab Screens (NAAS), a network of 16 cinemas in Arabic-speaking countries also held its general assembly during the workshops.

Canada’s HotDocs inked a formal partnership with the workshops this year, with a separate selection of three projects in its Blue Ice program.

“I’m very happy to have the key people from the African and Arab film industry attending,” commented Rémi Bonhomme, coordinator of the Atlas Workshops and program manager of Critics’ Week in Cannes. “I think the workshop has changed the perception of the festival, because it’s not just an international festival. It is now a very important meeting place for the entire region. I have been talking with a lot of African filmmakers here and they were quite amazed that so many of their colleagues are here. The workshops are establishing a position as an annual rendezvous for the African and Arab film industries and I think it also helps create a common identity for the region.”

Faical Laraichi and Sarim Fassi Fihri, vice-presidents of the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation, both stated to Variety that they believe that the Atlas Workshops is one of the key achievements of the festival, which was relaunched in 2018, since it acts as a magnet for leading film professionals within the region.

The executives who contributed to the panel discussions and also took part in mentoring sessions with projects included Paul Federbush (Sundance Institute), Hanaa Issa (Doha Film Institute), Dora Bouchoucha (Sud Ecriture), Ayman El Amir (MAHD Film Lab), Mohamed Hefzy (Cairo Film Festival), Claire Diao (Directors’ Fortnight), Daniela Persico (Locarno), Sarah Chazelle (Jour2fête), Magalie Armand (CNC World Cinema Fund), Khalil Benkirane (Doha Film Institute), Olena Decock (Hot Docs – Blue Ice Group), Soleil Gharbieh (Arab Fund for Arts and Culture), Judy Kibinge (DocuBox), Steven Markovitz (African Screen Network) and Jowe Harfouche (Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS).

Sales agents highlighted the growing interest in films from the region. Executives attending included Yohann Comte (Charades), Hedi Zardi (Luxbox), Thomas Pibarot (Le Pacte), Martin Gondre (Best Friend Forever), Aida Benelkhadir (Orange Studio), and Laure Parleani (Totem).

Parleani said that she felt that this year’s edition has built on the strengths of the first edition. “We can discuss projects with local distributors and with producers from the region and it’s really a complete program. We can discuss the difficulties in getting films onto screens, because there is a great shortage of screens in the region. It’s been very useful to talk with pan-Arab exhibition organizations, such as the Network of Arab Alternative Screens. We can also see how rights are dealt with separately between theaters, TV and streamers in each territory.”

Comte says that he has identified a couple of projects he aims to follow after the workshops and is impressed by the mix of young and established producers. “There’s a good energy. You really feel that a new wave is happening in the region.”


SWEET ANNOYANCE by Hiwot Admasu Getaneh (Ethiopia), produced by Mehret Mandefro (Ethiopia)

THE ORIGINAL LIE by Asmae El Moudir (Morocco) produced by Insight Films (Morocco) and Hutong Prod (France)

IKIMANUKA – SEASONS OF THE WEARY KIND by Samuel Ishimwe (Rwanda) produced by Imitana Productions (Rwanda) – Petit Chaos (France)

LES MEUTES by Kamal Lazraq (Morocco) produced by Barney Production (France) and Mont Fleuri Production (Morocco)

THE GRAVEDIGGER by Khadar Ahmed (Djibouti) produced by Bufo Ab (Finland) and Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion (Germany)

ZANKA CONTACT by Ismaël el Iraki, produced by Saïd Hamich (Morocco/France)

NAAS PRIZE FOR FILM CIRCULATION – a $3,000 grant allowing network member cinemas to invite the winning director to present screenings of their film and so facilitate the circulation of the work in Arabic-speaking countries – THE GRAVEDIGGER by Khadar Ahmed (Djibouti)

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