The 18th edition of the Marrakech Film Festival (Nov. 29-Dec. 7) – one of the leading cultural events in the Africa and Middle East region – will screen 98 films from 34 countries.

The fest is also reinforcing its industry presence this year through the second edition of the Atlas Workshops, sponsored by Netflix, which includes a development competition and pix-in-post competition for projects from Africa and the Middle East, including 10 projects competing for the development prize and six films competing for the post-production prize.

A major delegation of Australian helmers and thesps, including David Michôd and Shannon Murphy, will attend the 25-picture Australian cinema tribute, which includes “Dead Calm,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “Mad Max” and “Crocodile Dundee.”

The 14-picture Official Selection, formed exclusively by first and second films, includes works from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Australasia, with five pics by women helmers, such as Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth” and Annabelle Attanasio’s “Mickey and the Bear.”

The nine-person jury is presided by Tilda Swinton, accompanied by directors Rebecca Zlotowski, Andrea Arnold, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Atiq Rahimi, David Michôd, and Ali Essafi, and actors Chiara Mastroianni and Mikael Persbrandt.

As previously announced, Robert Redford will receive a career tribute during the fest.

Opening picture is Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery “Knives Out,” starring Daniel Craig and Jamie-Lee Curtis. Other gala screenings include Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven” and three first films from North African helmers – Hinde Boujemaa’s “Noura’s Dream,” Maryam Touzani’s “Adam” and the closing film, Mohamed Sakr’s “Ras El Sana.”

Christoph Terhechte, the fest’s artistic director, and Rémi Bonhomme, Atlas Workshops coordinator, spoke to Variety, offering a sneak preview of this year’s festival.

Christoph, what were the main challenges for choosing this year’s Official Selection?
Terhechte: We have very powerful voices this year. It’s important to show works that are formally challenging. They are arthouse with a big stress on the word “art.” I think that all these films will challenge audiences. We have seen last year that audiences in Marrakech embrace such films – we enjoyed packed sessions even in the morning screenings. It’s a very international selection. We have films from China and Korea and also from Latin America and Europe. We’re delighted to have some very extraordinary and unusual films from Africa and the Middle East, such as the Saudi film “Last Visit,” which played in Karlovy Vary. The pic’s director Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan is almost like a Bergman in Saudi cinema.

The Moroccan film “The Unknown Saint” offers a very subtle, toned-down form of comedy, a bit like Aki Kaurismaki or Jim Jarmusch. It’s a completely different approach for Moroccan cinema. Ala Eddine Slim’s “Tlamess” from Tunisia refines and repeats some of the ideas of his first film, “The Last of Us.” Here it’s a diptych; it’s a film that has absolutely no comparison in the Arab world. His originality is stunning.

Christoph, what balance do you aim to achieve between different types of film at the fest?
Overall what’s important for us is to have different sections, with more mainstream films in our Gala Screenings, vibrant arthouse films in competition, and then our Eleventh Continent section for outright experimental films, such as the Algerian film “Abou Leila.” In our open air-screenings at the Place Jemaa el Fna we have big popular cinema for huge crowds. We’re not afraid of popular cinema at all, we just think that there is an audience for all types of film. My whole approach is that everything is cinema. I love to see a cheesy melodrama just as much a four-hour experimental film by Jonas Mekas. There is an audience for all these films and a festival should have spaces where all these different audience needs can be satisfied. It worked marvellously last year at Marrakech and we aim to build on this for this edition.

Rémi, looking at the projects presented at the Atlas Workshops, what kind of voices are we seeing from the Arab and African region?
In addition to the tutoring sessions organized with projects presented to the workshops we will have seven panel discussions addressing different topics related to writing, production and distribution of African and Arab films. We have a focus this year on genre filmmaking, which is on the rise in the Arab world. We will open the workshop with a panel discussion with Mati Diop who will present her French/Senegalese film “Atlantics,” which also flirts with genre filmmaking. We aim to talk about the different forms of genre filmmaking in African and Middle Eastern films. I’m talking about horror, dystopian, fantastic genre. As you may know because of the political situation in Africa and the Middle East, there are a lot of dystopian stories being written as novels and adapted into film, as a way of talking about the current political situation. In addition to Mati Diop, the discussions include Larissa Sansour, who is a very famous Palestinian contemporary artist who has also directed several short films, and who is now developing a feature film which will use science fiction as a way of exploring the current situation of Palestine, by imagining Palestine in 50 years from now. I’m also the programming manager for Cannes Critics’ Week and I think this interaction between auteur and genre cinema is one of the most interesting developments at present.

Christoph, what are the main characteristics of the country tribute to Australia?
We’ve all seen Australian films but I think it’s rarer to think about Australian cinema as an entity, as a whole. When we drew up the list of films I realised how much they have in common, a shared identity. We’re not trying to present a full retrospective, because that would imply different approaches. Here the idea is to bring over a huge delegation of Australian talent who can introduce their films and discuss them with the audience.

Christoph, what are some of the underlying themes you can identify in Australia cinema?
The aboriginal question: There are a lot of films that address the extremely unfair and criminal ways that Australia has for a long time treated its aboriginal population and aboriginal cinema has also begun to offer another perspective.

The landscape: The fact that much of Australia is the bush or the desert and the big influence the landscape has on the local mindset.

Outlaws: The first feature-length film ever made was Australian, “The Story of the Kelly Gang.” This year there’s a new take on that story, directed by Justin Kurzel, which we’ll also be presenting.

There are a lot of Australian films talking about outcasts, rule-breakers, law-breakers and people who fight against society. There are also many actors and directors working internationally, who are not necessarily identified as Australians by the general public.

Christoph, what do you enjoy most about this festival?
It’s not just about screening films but above all about building audiences. Once again we will be visiting schools and universities over the coming weeks to encourage people to come to the festival and we have special screenings organized for schools that were extremely successful last year. I’m sure that in each screening there will be at least one girl who decides she wants to become a director and one boy who will become a lifelong film buff. I love the fact that we are able to bring a very highbrow program to an audience that is super interested. It’s very rewarding to see how you can create audiences and create a need for cultural diversity.

Marrakech’s Official Competition line-up
“Babyteeth” (Aus) dir. Shannon Murphy
“Mickey and the Bear” (U.S.) dir. Annabelle Attanasio
“Lynn + Lucy” (U.K.) dir. Fyzal Boulifa
“Bombay Rose” (India-Fra-U.K.-Qua) dir. Gitanjali Rao
“The Fever” (Bra-Fra-Ger) dir. Maya Da-Rin
“Tlamess” (Tun-Fra) dir. Ala Eddine Slim
“The Unknown Saint” (Mor-Fra) dir. Alaa Eddine Aljem
“Nafi’s Father” (Sen) dir. Mamadou Dia
“Last Visit” (Saudi Arabia) dir. Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan
“Mamonga” (Ser-Bos Herz-Mont) dir. Stefan Malešević
“Mosaic Portrait” (Chi) dir. Zhai Yixiang
“Sole” (Ita-Pol) dir. Carlo Sironi
“Valley of Souls” (Col-Bel-Bra-Fra) dir. Nicolás Rincón Gille
“Scattered Night” (S Kor) dir. Lee Jih-young, Kim Sol