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David Poland

By David Poland

The Marrakech International Film Festival

There is a lot to learn about putting on a film festival in Marrakech.

There is plenty to criticize as well. But seriously… any festival looking to play on the world stage should send a delegation to Morocco to see how they handle things there. Make no mistake, there is a huge advantage to being the assured big fish in a relatively small town, “UNDER THE HIGH PATRONAGE OF HIS MAJESTY KING MOHAMMED VI.” Mel Brooks was right when he said that it was good to be the king. And King Mohammed VI puts up a heckuva nice spread for his annual movie embrace.

Every city does streetlamp banners for their big film festivals. Of course, the festival is usually one of 3 or 4 events being promoted this way. And in Marrakech, there was also competition. But banners were ubiquitous. So were stand-up three-sided kiosks with not only the imagery of the festival, but easily accessible schedules for all five theaters and all the screenings. They also had wonderful standees all over town with actual images of the films, filmmakers, jury members, honorees, etc, with interesting, detailed information about the films and the filmmakers. I guess in the politics of a festival like NYFF, someone would be out counting how many times Movie B got promoted versus Movie C, but still, it created a sense of movie love in the streets of a city that one rarely sees. In Cannes or San Sebastian, there are distributors paying for big images everywhere… but this feels different.

Once inside a venue, the festival ran a very simple, but very effective visual representation of the festival program, with images and descriptions from each of the nodes of the fest. I think these could have actually been a little more complex, but you had a clear sense by the end of one day attending movies of how big the competition group was, who was being honored, who was on the jury, who was doing masterclasses, etc. And them when a film was ready to be show, there was a screen image projected for a minute or two that looked a bit like a page from a program book… but was a surprisingly nice, simple way of setting up what you were about to see… taking you out of the headspace of getting to the venue, picking seats, chatting with friends or strangers, and generally settling in. In the main theater, there was the Cannes-like formality of introducing the director and/or cast and crew, but even outside of that setting, there was something nice about the vibe of “and now we present…”

Speaking of the talent in the first balcony, if there was one thing about Marrakech that I really didn’t like, it was that it felt very segregated. I was told by other journalists in attendance that it wasn’t always this way… even last year. But the festival keeps growing and the sense of community that I know that I am afforded at other festivals was not in play here. I acknowledge that as a journalist at a film festival, there is a built-in sense of entitlement. But as a guest who has flown 18 hours to attend this event, presumably to promote the glories and pleasures of the films and the festival itself, I presumed that I might run into a juror or a filmmaker at breakfast now and again. And given that I have interviewed or chatted up most of the non-Moroccan talent at the festival sometime in the last couple of years, we might chat in a relaxed way, aside from whatever the press office was—or was not—able to arrange. But I didn’t see a single filmmaker or jury member in our 5-star hotel… ever. Nor were I or my brethren invited to engage in any way, aside from in a set-up interview. So… the anti-Telluride, really. And given what Marrakech is and is not in the movie universe, that seemed a misstep.

Thing is, I can’t blame the festival for managing growth clumsily. The same can be said for some of the major festivals on this continent. But there are checks & balances in the form of the distributors at those festivals, who are actively selling or promoting upcoming releases for their films. Harvey Weinstein did show up the day after Mandela’s death to present One Chance, but I would assume that exhausting effort was made for reasons of long-term funding opportunity for The Weinstein Company, not traditional festival courtesy.

In any case, it is not for me to define the goals of the Marrakech Film Festival or the King. But at the risk of sounding arrogant, I can read the intentions and the boundaries of pretty much every film festival I have ever attended within 24 hours of my arrival. It’s apparent in the programing, the guest relations, the talent on hand, the venues, the press opportunities, etc. in Morocco, after a week, not so much.

It is clear that bringing in a buttload of talent is a big focus of the festival. There were so many major filmmakers in Morocco over the 10 day run of the festival that when some dropped out at the last second—like Kiarostami—it didn’t slow the event down much.

And what is apparent is that local perspective may be more important than anything else at the festival. Jurors spent time with and taught local aspiring artists. There was an unapologetically heavy dose of local talent in all the competitions of the festival. And there seemed to be a lot more interest from the festival’s media relations desk on local radio and than in international press. That is unusual… but being different—or to my disadvantage—doesn’t make it wrong.

What was left, for me, was a free trip to Marrakech… more chance to do print interviews than taped (which is pretty much all I do now)… some exceptional talent doing some interesting, but underfed things, and a mediocre film festival. Part of that mediocrity was that if a film wasn’t playing for the jury, there was a good chance that there would be no English subtitles. So, once I realized that I wasn’t doing anything interview-wise for days, my default of trying to see a lot of movies—I saw 4 on the first day—was a bit of a flop too.

There was a great big Scandinavian sidebar… most of which had no English subtitles… and most of the films that did, I had already seen elsewhere. There were high quality leftovers from other festivals (fourth time trying to see Blue Ruin was the charm). And there was a lot of energetic, aggressive filmmaking that can best be described as… young. A lot of rape and drugs and parental threat at this festival.

Marrakech is a fascinating city. In many ways, it is not much different than many of the aggressively moneyed towns being built in the middle of formerly 3rd world cities. There is a ton of construction going on. There are a lot of empty buildings all over the place. You can be on a block with all of the world’s most fashionable brands with their own stores and then walk 6 blocks away onto a dirt street. There is a 5,000-Euro-a-night hotel a few blocks from the souks, which glow a beige light at night between the underlit streets.

People were very nice. There is a very low crime rate, apparently, so while women may get hassled by people wanting to sell them things on the streets more than the guys, there is not a lot of fearful tension. But there are guards in front of every hotel I saw, keeping the locals at a distance.

Pretty much every other journalist I spoke to was hoping to come back to Marrakech next year. I enjoyed it as well, both the festival and the city. But not quite enough for 48 hours in airplanes and airports. And certainly not with the working mindset I brought there. I would love to know how the festival—and the American press reps did a great job, but they are not running the festival—sees itself and what it really wants from an American journalist. I felt, going in, that a half-dozen or more top talent interviews at the festival would have given an impression that the festival was aiming at not only being world-class, but at being on the high end of specialty festivals. But I ended up shooting one excellent director… at the end of the festival… who I was meant to shoot in Toronto, but couldn’t fit into the schedule. Bless her… terrific interview… but…

And now, after the jump, photos and video from the press day to Ouarzazate… which turned out to be about 60 of our closest media friends heading about 150 miles from Marrakech to the desert studios where lots of desert movies have been shot.

One Response to “The Marrakech International Film Festival”

  1. berg says:

    getting a real Ishtar vibe from that camel

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