The 18th edition of the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival awarded the Etoile d’Or for best film to Colombia’s “Valley of Souls,” directed by Nicolás Rincón Gille. In his acceptance speech the director said: “Colombia is a country that people know very little about. But in this film I try to offer a glimpse of the country and make us realize how we are connected at the deepest human level.”

The Jury Prize was awarded, ex aequo, to Saudi Arabian pic “Last Visit” by Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan, who expressed his thanks to his cast and crew, and Chinese film “Mosaic Portrait” by Zhai Yixiang, who said: “I saw a lot of mosaics here in Marrakech, so I think I came to the right place.”

Best directing prize was awarded to the Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim for his visually striking “Tlamess.” He dedicated the award to “all people who have a dream to achieve something in their lives.”

Best female actor was awarded, ex aequo, to the British actors Nichola Burley and Roxanne Scrimshaw in Fyzal Boulifa’s working-class tragedy “Lynn + Lucy.” A tearful Roxanne received the award on behalf of both actors and explained that her co-star couldn’t be there because she was getting married.

Best male actor went to Australian actor Toby Wallace in Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth.” The award was received on his behalf by actor Ben Mendelsohn, who said he “is a spectacular young Australian actor who in this film traverses the difficult territory of a drug addict and a ne’er-do-well, which poses many pitfalls for an actor and floats above it in a sublime way.”

Jury president Tilda Swinton announced all the awards, which she said were agreed unanimously between the jury members, who “part as friends for life.”

Swinton left a decisive mark on the tone for this year’s edition. During the fest she praised the role of the festival in breaking down barriers in world cinema and said she identified with the risk-taking approach of the films screened in Official Selection.

Several guests highlighted the importance of maintaining an irreverent attitude in their work.

Harvey Keitel explained that he has been primarily attracted to characters who transgress social norms, since it sometimes offers a path to finding a higher and spiritual meaning in life.

French helmer Bertrand Tavernier, who received a career tribute at the fest, emphasized how much he has learned from “outcasts,” including American writers and directors who were blacklisted during McCarthyism and European émigrés such as Otto Preminger, who he said brought a sense of doubt into Hollywood cinema.

The tribute to Australian cinema also emphasized the importance of rule-breakers. Mendelsohn said that what makes a good Australian is having a “healthy disrespect for authority.” Director Gillian Armstrong added, “We love home, we love our losers and best of all we love to laugh at ourselves.”

U.K. producer Jeremy Thomas, during an onstage interview, emphasized that he has always wanted to remain as an independent producer because he feels uncomfortable with towing a mainstream line: “My cinema and my taste in my life is counterculture. That’s what I am. That’s an unusual place to be as a filmmaker, as a producer, because we’re not living in a counterculture time.”

Robert Redford explained onstage that it has also been this spirit that has driven his career: “Some part of me has always had an outlaw sensibility. That’s why I asked George Roy Hill to let me play the Sundance Kid rather than Butch Cassidy. I’ve had that most of my life and had to learn how to integrate within the mainstream. That’s what inspired me to create the Sundance festival.”

According to the festival’s artistic director Christoph Terhechte, this year’s edition had almost twice the level of public attendance, the fruit of a major outreach initiative in the weeks leading up to the festival.

Excluding the films shown in the multiple retrospectives, around 65 new films were screened at the festival, with more than one third from Africa and the Middle East, reflecting the festival’s goal to serve as a showcase for films from the region. Three of the gala screenings were also from the region and Terhechte said that it was Arab/African films that enjoyed the highest audience levels and engagement.

In order to maximize audience engagement the tribute to Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra was held in Marrakech’s iconic Jemaa el Fna square, followed by an open-air screening of her 2015 hit “Bajirao Mastani.” “It was an extremely joyful celebration,” said Terhechte. “We’ve had actors and directors present the open-air screening on each night, but we had a particularly large crowd for the tribute to Priyanka. People were dancing in front of the screen. We had a blast.”

Audience engagement also increased this year because of the Q&A sessions, which doubled in relation to last year, and not only included the main competition and the “11th Continent” sidebar but also for the Australian films and the special screenings.

“It’s very valuable for the filmmakers to get a reaction from local audiences,” said Terhechte. “Most of the Arab films had their first Arab audience in Marrakech. The filmmakers were very keen to hear the views of people who understand the language and react to their film a bit differently from a European audience.”

Moroccan films had a major presence – with 12 films – reflecting the country’s growing international standing as a film producer. Two Moroccan films played at Cannes and both were screened at Marrakech – Maryam Touzani’s debut film “Adam,” which had a gala screening, and Alaa Eddine Aljem’s “The Unknown Saint,” which competed in Official Selection.

Other Moroccan films screening included Abdelkader Lagtaa’s “A Love in Casablanca,” Farida Bourquia’s “Two Women on the Road,” and Saad Chraibi’s “Women… and Women.”

Five films screened in the Moroccan Panorama. Mohamed El Badaoui, director of “Lalla Aïcha,” starring Angela Molina, said that it was extremely useful to attend the festival and the Atlas Workshops, where he had meetings with acquisition executives from Netflix and Orange Studio.

Moroccan films won key awards in the Atlas Workshops competitions – “Zanka Contact,” by Ismaël el Iraki, won the second prize in the post-production competition, and “The Original Lie,” by Asmae El Moudir, won the second prize in the development competition.

Sarim Fassi Fihri, VP of the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation and general manager of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), considers that Moroccan titles with strong festival potential for 2020 include Mohamed Mouftakir’s “L’Automne des Pommiers.” His previous film, “The Blind Orchestra,” won the Etoile d’Or at Marrakech in 2014 and the top prize, the Tanit d’Or, in the 2015 Carthage Film Festival.

Another strong title, according to Fassi Fihri, is Ismaël Ferroukhi’s “Mica,” produced by Lamia Chraibi, which competed in the Atlas Workshop’s post-production competition, and has already won roughcut prizes in Venice, El Gouna and the Malmo Arab Film Festival.

Faïçal Laraïchi, the other VP of the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation, and director of pubcaster SNRT, said that he’s delighted with this year’s edition in particular the success of the Atlas Workshops, which almost doubled its number of participants.

“Over the last two decades we have been advocating an open spirit that aims to bring people together and also provide a window for new voices, which is why our Official Selection is restricted to first and second films. It offers a beautiful window to see what’s happening around the world and understand the main concerns and feelings of the younger generation.”

Netflix left a clear mark on this year’s edition as sponsor of the Atlas Workshops and key partner for the festival as a whole. Two Netflix productions were shown in the Gala Screenings – Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.”

“I’m pro-Netflix because as partners they have enabled us to show great films here,” explained Terhechte. “I’m not the kind of purist who would refuse Netflix. This is one of the ways to make films nowadays and they’ve been much more generous with the filmmakers than any other producer would have been. But of course I still believe in the importance of showing films on the big screen. This was obvious when we showed films to child audiences who had never been in a film theater before and screamed with joy when the lights went down. You can’t beat that.”

“This year’s edition has been very intense and very rich,” concluded Mélita Toscan du Plantier, advisor to the president of the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation, Prince Moulay Rachid. “It’s always a challenge for me to get the best juries and the best personalities for tributes. There are some people I’ve been trying to get here for 20 years, like Al Pacino or Meryl Streep. Every year it’s a struggle. I met Robert Redford eight years ago, but because of his hectic agenda he was only able to come this year.”

Looking ahead, next year’s 19th edition will be held in mid-November. The country tribute has yet to be decided, but possible candidates include China and Germany.