Marrakech: A Festival for Film Legends and First-Time Directors

by Gabriel Lerman December 8, 2019
Tilda Swinton at the Marrakech Film Festival

dominique charriau/getty images

There are not too many international film festivals, besides the big ones such as Cannes, Venice or Berlin, that attract as many big celebrities as Marrakech in Morocco. That is probably due to a long Hollywood tradition of using the country as a location for films starting with Lawrence of Arabia. Morocco’s amazing landscapes, affordable technical quality, safety, and low costs have allowed filmmakers to recreate any other country in the region and the Middle East. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Leonardo DiCaprio have been guests of the festival in the past or, in the case of the director of The Irishman, president of the Jury.

This year's edition, which took place from November 29 to December 7, was no exception. Tilda Swinton was invited to lead a jury that also included Chiara Mastroianni, David Michôd and Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho. For the career tributes, one of the high points in the MIFF tradition, the line-up couldn't have been better. Robert Redford traveled to Marrakech to appear on stage last Friday in one of the biggest events at the Palais du Congres, where most of the festival takes place, receiving an award in a full house and with a standing ovation.

Hours before the closing ceremony, Redford sat down on Saturday for a conversation in front of an audience in which he recalled his amazing career. Harvey Keitel did the same hours before introducing his latest collaboration with Scorsese, in a candid dialogue in which he recalled many of the films he did with the master. Bollywood and Hollywood star Priyanka Chopra Jonas was also here for a tribute and a conversation. Legendary French director Bertrand Tavernier was honored too and local cinema was included with a tribute to Mouna Fettou, leading actress of such Moroccan films as Love in Casablanca and Women... and Women.

Each tribute included a retrospective of some of the honorees’ best films. The conversations were not limited to the people receiving a tribute. Italian director Luca Guadagnino, Russian master Sergei Loznitsa, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, British producer Jeremy Thomas, French actor-director Roschdy Zem, Tunisian actress Hind Sabri and Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani all spent an hour in front of an audience recalling their impressive careers. Marion Cotillard showed up for the opening ceremony, and a huge number of Australian celebrities and directors were also at Marrakech for an extensive tribute to their cinema, which included 25 films, among them masterpieces such as Shine, A Cry in the Dark, Black Robe, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Naomi Watts, Abbie Cornish, Jason Clarke, Gillian Amstrong, Bruce Beresford, Anthony LaPaglia, Ben Mendelsohn, Radha Mitchell, Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush, Greta Scacchi, Fred Schepisi, Sara Snook and Aden Young were invited to attend, among many more.

An interesting counterpoint to the vast number of celebrities showing up in Morocco, most of them not involved in the award season campaigns in full swing in the US, is the fact that the official competition was reserved for first or second-time directors. The US’ only entry was Annabelle Attanasio's Mickey and the Bear, proof that, even with such big names walking the red carpet, this festival is a celebration of international cinema.

Speaking of the competition, Valley of Souls from Colombian Nicolás Rincón Gille won the Golden Star for Best Film, while the Jury Prize was shared between Last Visit from Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan (Saudi Arabia) and Mosaic Portrait from Zhai Yixiang (China). Best Director went to Tunisian Ala Eddine Slim for Tlamess, while the Best Actress award was shared by Nichola Burley and Roxanne Scrimshaw, both British, for Lynn + Lucy from Fyzal Boulifa. Toby Wallace won Best Actor for Babyteeth from Shannon Murphy (Australia). Also competing were the animated film Bombay Rose from Gitanjali Rao (India), The Fever from Maya Da-Rin (Brazil), Mamonga from Stefan Malesevic (Serbia), Nafi's Father from Mamadou Dia (Senegal), Scattered Night from Lee Jih Young and Kim Sol (South Korea), Sole from Carlo Sironi (Italy), and The Unknown Saint from Alaa Eddine Aljem (Morocco).

There were plenty of other films being shown, all for free, in the five-theater circuit which included a big screen at the most popular place in Marrakech, Jmaa el Fna, a public square where cinema had to compete with snake enchanters, acrobats and real monkeys as well as traders of all kinds.