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Last updated: August 20, 2005
Copyright 2006
Michael R. Colford. All rights reserved

Film Festival Reviews

Marrakech International Film Festival Report

by Richard Alleman
 
Marrakech Film FestivalThree and a half years ago, in the wake of 9-11, the North African city of Marrakech inaugurated its Festival International du Film in October of 2001. Needless to say, with the climate of fear and uncertainty that prevailed at the time, a film festival in a Muslim country was not exactly a hot ticket. The festival went on, however, and despite the unfortunate timing of its debut, it has become an important annual event on the city’s social calendar. The Festival also has started to attract international attention with its mix of films from Europe, the U.S., India, Africa, the Far East, and the Arab world.
 
Last December, I managed to wangle an official invite to the Fourth Edition of the Festival as a journalist. The line-up of films was impressive. Fourteen in competition (from Argentina, Spain, Thailand, Hong Kong, Finland, France/UK, China, Senegal, Brazil, USA, Russia, Italy, and Morocco); ten out of competition; a special series of Moroccan films from
1958 to the present; another series focusing on the work of Egyptian writer-director Youssef Chahine; yet another featuring Bollywood cult films. If all this were not enough,
the Festival also celebrated the careers of Sir Sean Connery and Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, both of whom were on hand.
 
Presented with this embarrassment of choices, my problem was deciding what to see. Luckily, I know Marrakech well, so I was not overly tempted to sightsee and could devote six days to watching films. I was also lucky in that I was able to rely on the expertise of friend and fellow Chlotrudis member Bruce Kingsley to help with making my decisions.
 

An image of a building on a website having to do with the Marrakech International Film FestivalThe headquarters of the Festival was Marrakech’s convention center, known as the Palais des Congrès, a monumental Moorish-moderne structure halfway between Marrakech’s ancient walled medina and its modern quarter-originally laid out by the French colonial administration in the 1920s known as Guéliz. Here every film was screened in one of the center’s two large theaters, but these screenings were open only to official delegates. At the same time, however, all the Festival films were repeated throughout the week at three local movie houses, one of which was the vintage art-déco Cinéma le Colisée in Guéliz. These showings were open to the public, which meant that the local populace as well as tourists could (and did) attend-with tickets priced at a mere 5 dirhams (60¢ U.S.)! The Festival’s most exotic venue, however, was the Place Jemaa El Fna, the city’s fabled open-air plaza which is a nonstop carnival of food stalls, story tellers, snake charmers, and musicians. Each night of the Film Festival, the Place became a vast outdoor movie theater, where the offerings ranged from Cardinale’s 1966 western The Professionals to Connery’s 1996 Alcatraz thriller The Rock to the contemporary Moroccan road film Le Grand Voyage.

 
Sean ConneryIn addition to all the films, the Festival hosted a number of special events and ceremonies, which were by invitation only. I never quite figured out how these invites were issued, and often I didn’t make the cut. A case in point was the official opening of the Festival, which honored the aforementioned Ms Cardinale and Mr Chahine, followed by the Spanish film El Crimen Perfecto (Perfect Crime), shown in competition. On the other hand, I was invited the next evening to the “Hommage Sir Sean Connery,” which was little more than a few quick speeches, including one from Laurence Fishburne, who introduced Sir Sean, who in turn said simply how happy he was to be back in Morocco, where he had not only filmed The Man Who Would Be King and Time Bandits but also won a golf tournament back in the 1970s. Strangely, there were no film clips of any of Connery’s movies at this ceremony, although four of his films were shown throughout the week.
 

AlexanderConnery’s evening was then turned over to Oliver Stone, in town to present a special screening of his turkey, Alexander, which had been shot the previous year largely in Morocco and which had been shot down a few weeks earlier by U.S. film critics. Stone’s comments were brief, and had a somewhat embarrassing neo-con tone, as he lauded Alexander as a hero for his military efforts in spreading Western civilization to an otherwise barbarian world. In all fairness, the film wasn’t as bad as I had expected-and the art direction and cinematography were especially powerful. And while I’m not big on battle scenes, Alexander’s were extraordinary-especially the India campaign (shot in Thailand) with all those elephants. But far too much sloppy and often confusing storytelling-complete with a flashback within a flashback. Equally messy was the mélange of accents used by the leading players-Irish, Northern English, Royal Shakespeare Company British, American. Surprisingly, the one accent that made sense was Angelina Jolie’s Greco-Eastern European rasp. For many in the audience- a number of whom had worked on the shoot-the real star of Alexander was Morocco.

 
Although I didn’t make the opening ceremony, I did attend a press conference on the first day of the festival, where the Jury was introduced and later took questions. President of
the Jury was Sir Alan Parker, who when questioned “what is a good film?” answered: “one which can hold me from beginning to end and make me feel as well as make me think.” Parker, like everyone else, said how happy he was to be in beautiful Marrakech, and also, like everyone else, bemoaned the fact that a schedule of seeing three films a day left very little time for sightseeing and shopping.
 
In answer to an Arabic-speaker’s question regarding how Parker felt about the power that the U.S.A. exerts over the film business, Parker pointed out that “as a British director
who has made most of my films in the U.S., the American system has been good to me…but U.S. control of world cinema is a concern-it’s not good that every cinema in the
world is dominated by one country. I come from the European tradition of a more political cinema-but we can’t be too snobby. U.S. cinema for the most part works because it communicates.” Besides Parker, other Jury members included Brazilian writer Paul Coelho (whose best-selling novel The Alchemist is scheduled to be produced by Laurence Fishburne and possibly shot in Morocco); U.S. actress-director Rosanna Arquette; Italian actresses Laura Morante and Valeria Golino, Ivory Coast screenwriter-director Henri Duparc, Egyptian film critic Samir Farid, and Moroccan producer Sarin Fassi- Fihri.
 
But on with the festival. My plan was to see 12 films and to concentrate on films that I would not normally be able to see in the U.S. So I sidestepped Sideways, which was in
competition, and many of the oldies being shown as part of the various “homages.” I was not entirely successful in my planning, as I missed a number of films that fellow festival-
goers raved about-such as Chinese director Xiao Jiang’s Cultural Revolution coming-of-age opus Electric Shadows, and Russian filmmaker Dmitry Meskhiyev’s Svoi (Our Own), a
tale of three Russian soldiers on the run from the Nazis in the early days of World War II. Still, I saw a half dozen films that I found exceptional and which I highly recommend should they come to the U.S. in cinemas, at festivals, or on video/ DVD.
 
MoolaadéAt the top of my list was the Senegalese film Moolaadé. One of the 11 films in competition at the festival, this tale of how a group of village women bucked the tribal establishment
to fight the practice of female circumcision (or more accurately, genital mutilation) featured haunting cinematography that transported us not just to a West African village but took
us inside it. At the same time, the film had a strong story and sensitive performances-notably that of the actress playing the leader of the revolt, Fatoumata Coulibaly, who along with the film’s writer/director Ousmane Sembene, was at the Festival in person.
 
The Syrian BrideAnother standout was the French-German-Israeli co-production The Syrian Bride, directed by Eran Riklis of Israel. A human and often comic look at the vagaries of the Arab-Israeli
conflict, the film focuses on a middle-class Syrian Muslim family living on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It is the wedding day of Mona, one of the daughters, who is engaged to a Syrian TV star on the other side of the border. Because of the political situation, most of the preparations for the wedding take place on the Israeli-occupied side of the fence, whereas the actual wedding will be held on the Syrian side, without the participation of Mona’s family, since they are forbidden to travel there. And once Mona crosses over to Syria, she will not be able to return to the Golan. Although politics enter into the film-as they must, given the territory-Riklis has not made a political film. Instead he gives us a portrait of a contemporary Syrian Muslim family-the stern father, who will not forgive one of his sons for marrying a Russian woman… his strong wife, who wants to go back to university against her husband’s wishes…the hip teenage daughter who’s dating the son of a suspected collaborator with the Israelis…and the super-cool womanizer son Marwan who lives in Italy. All are struggling to live relatively normal lives, despite the highly abnormal circumstances they find themselves in. Riklis also doesn’t take sides-the Israeli border official, for example, is as much a buffoon as is his Syrian counterpart.
 
MurAnother Israeli film that takes on the Arab-Israeli conflict in an original way was Mur (Wall), a chilling documentary by Simone Bitton, an Israeli of Moroccan-Jewish descent, that details the building of the controversial wall being erected by the Sharon government to separate Israel from much of the West Bank and Gaza. Bitton lets the wall tell the story, with long sequences of the monstrosity rising slowly, ominously… then its being covered with graffiti…and ultimately stolen shots of Palestinians slipping through the structure, showing how pointless the whole project is. Although there is very little dialogue, there are occasional interviews and commentsfrom an arrogant Israeli Defense Minister (“Both sides of the wall are ours”) to a kibbutz-nick who sees the folly of it all but who nonetheless hasn’t lost hope (“As long as we talk about it, there’s hope…silence indicates hopelessness”). In the end, Wall offers no answers to one of the world’s most agonizing political conflicts. But it does raise many questions.
 
Ten'jaI also saw two fine modern Moroccan films at the Festival. Both were road films. Ten'ja, directed by Moroccan-born, Paris-based Hassan Legzouli, follows the surreal journey of
Nordine, a young French Moroccan, who, obeying his late father’s last wish, takes his corpse for burial to the Berber village in southern Morocco where he was born. What follows are a series of misadventures as Nordine smuggles the body in the back of his van on the ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier. Once in Morocco, Nordine meets an assortment of crazy locals-notably a hash-smoking hustler named Mimoun-and winds up traveling with a beautiful young Moroccan woman (Nora) who has just been dumped by her wealthy lover. Together Nordine and Nora drive south, first to Casablanca, and then into the deep south amidst increasingly beautiful mountain scenery. A romance of sorts develops, but it’s all very discreet, and real-and there’s no syrupy happy Hollywood ending. There’s also a bit of Magic Realism at play, with the father in the back of the van coming to life in several sequences. When the travelers reach the village, Nordine, who’s spent all of his life in Europe, gets a new understanding of who he is and where he comes from. And as in Moolaadé, we are treated to an insider’s look at a world that few Westerners have ever seen. A sensitive, touching film with superb performances by Rosehdy Zem as Nordine, Aure Atika as Nora, and Abdou El Mesnaoui as Mimoun.
 
Le Grand VoyageIn Moroccan director Ismael Ferroukhi’s Le Grand Voyage, we again find a Europeanized North African son on the road with his father. Only this time the father is very much alive;
an elderly, traditional, deeply religious man-despite the fact he has lived in France for decades-he has called upon 20-year-old Réda to drive him from France to Saudi Arabia to make the hadj (pilgrimage) in Mecca. The two have nothing in common (father reads the Koran as Réda dreams of, and sneaks cell-phone calls to, his French girlfriend) and there is constant tension between them as they encounter a blizzard in Bulgaria, a conman in Turkey, near starvation in Syria, and a prostitute in Jordan. After many misadventures-some comic, some quite touching-the odd couple finally reaches Mecca, and we are treated to rare footage of this holy Saudi Arabian city filled with millions of pilgrims at the time of the hadj. By the end of the film, although again there is no cliché denouement, both father and son have a new appreciation of one another. They have both made a grand voyage-as have we. Kudos here to Moroccan actor Mohamed Majd, whose portrayal of the father was one of the best performances of the Festival.
 
Another amazing performance was that of Vera Farmiga as the drug-addicted young mother in Debra Granik’s Down To The Bone, which was in competition at the Festival. I am amazed that this gritty little film seems not to have found distribution in the U.S. It is well worth seeing-although it was somewhat bizarre for me to be transported to the wilds of Upstate New York from downtown Marrakech!
 
Producing AdultsNot quite in the same league, in my opinion, was another film in competition called Producing Adults, from Finnish director Aleksi Salmenperä. The action of the film revolves
around a fertility clinic, where its resident psychologist wants to have a child with a long-term boyfriend who does not. Although pregnant with comic possibilities, only some of
them were realized, and the film never seemed quite sure if it was a comedy or a serious look at relationships in post-industrial society. It was probably both-but it just didn’t work for me and ultimately Producing Adults reminded me of a minor Woody Allen opus, made slightly more watch-able thanks to its Scandinavian location.
 
Alexandria... New YorkThe most unusual film I saw at the Festival was from legendary Egyptian director-screenwriter Youssef Chahine, who, in Arab cinema, is a cross between Fellini and Douglas Sirk. Five of his many films were screened as part of the Festival’s Chahine homage. I caught his most recent effort, Alexandria-New York, a semi-autobiographical epic that starts with a famous Egyptian filmmaker’s visit to New York to
receive an award. There he meets up with his first love, whom he originally met while a student at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Using frequent flashbacks as well as scene shifts between L.A. (it was quite amusing to see how contemporary Cairo was dressed to double as 1950s Hollywood!), New York (where some location shooting was done), and Egypt, the story ultimately centers on the son-now a successful dancer in New York-the director didn’t know he had sired with his former drama school girlfriend. Discovering who his father really is, the son refuses to accept him and also has trouble with his newly revealed Arab background. There’s a bit of everything in this film: politics, romance, coming of age, coming to terms with one’s past, and even a few musical production numbers for good measure. It’s a messy but riveting film-and makes me want to see more of Chahine’s work.
 
I also was amused by what Chahine wrote in the Festival program, which reminded me of the director played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8 1/2. “I have been asked to jot down a few lines about my present feelings. Here they are! I have been swallowing 15 pills a day, emptying my bladder 17 times an hour under the effect of those very drugs which are allegedly good for my heart condition. I’ve been fighting like hell to stop smoking, stop being in a foul mood because of dumb president Bush’s re-election…and to crown it all I am totally devoid of inspiration for my new script. The world is a shit hole! Am I expected to say everything’s fine? The only glimmer of hope is that I know I’ll soon be in Marrakech, this wonder of a city which works miracles when you are depressed.”
 
The closing ceremonies of the Festival were appropriately festive. Outside the Palais des Congrès, troops of turbaned Gnoua (African trance dancers) and Berber musicians in long
robes and brocaded kaftans entertained on a vast expanse of Moroccan carpets. Inside, the evening began with actress Marisa Berenson, representing the United Nations, presenting the Unesco Fellini Medal to the International Marrakech Film Festival for its role in promoting cultural diversity. The award was accepted by Prince Moulay Rachid, younger brother of Morocco’s King Mohamed VI and President of the Film Festival Foundation.
 
Next came the Festival awards. There were four categories: best female performance, best male performance, Prix du jury, and the grand prize--L’Etoile d’Or--for best film. And the winners were: Vera Ferminga for her stunning performance in Down To The Bone… Bogdan Stupke for his work in the Russian film SVOI (Our Own)…both Mooladé and Xiao Jiang (Electric Shadows) tied for Prix du jury…and winning the Etoile d’Or for best film was Alexander Payne’s Sideways. The Sideways win surprised me and seemed a rather safe choice.
 

The Gate of the SunThe closing film was Gurinder Chadha’s Bride And Prejudice, introduced by the strikingly beautiful Indian actress Aishwarya Rai. Since I had a very early plane to catch the next morning, I darted out before the screening and the gala dinner that followed. On my way back to my digs in the medina, I passed through the great Place Jemaa El Fna, where the Franco-Egyptian film Bab El Shams (The Gate Of The Sun) was playing to a huge throng amidst the smoke of the outdoor restaurants and the drums of the singers and dancers. I only had time to take in a bit of this four-and-a-half hour-plus saga of a Palestinian refugee family that covers a half a century… and I was again confronted by the Festival conundrum of so many films, so little time. But despite the fact that there were many more films that I would like to have seen, it was still an enthralling six days of film-going in a remarkable city…and I recommend this festival to any film lover with a sense of
adventure. I would also recommend, however, that they allot a few days before and/or after the Festival for sightseeing, especially if they don’t know Morocco. Next year’s event is set for early October. Watch this space for further details as they become available... and feel free to e-mail me (REAlleman@aol.com) with questions or if you wish suggestions. (www.festivalmarrakech.wanadoo.ma/eng/foundation.cfm)

 

Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema • Festival International du Film de Marrakech • High Falls Film FestivalIndependent Film Festival of BostonProvincetown International Film FestivalSidewalk Film FestivalSundance Film FestivalToronto International Film FestivalTribeca Film FestivalVenice Film Festival