By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 19, 2011 at 5:30PM
So now that our bags are finally unpacked, the jet lag has been well and truly slept off, and the photos of snake charmers and trinket stalls uploaded to flickr, it’s time (actually rather past time, but give us a break, it’s been busy) to reflect on the experiences of the Marrakech International Film Festival, which we were lucky enough to attend from December 2nd-10th.
2011 Jury President Emir Kusturica opened proceedings on the kind of downbeat-yet-optimistic note that characterizes many of his films: “Cinema,” he declared, in his rather lugubrious Serbian accent, “will be saved in the greatest festivals” implying of course, that cinema is in a state to need a savior. He went on to opine, rather self-servingly, that “Marrakech is one of these.” Well, now, the thing is, it isn’t -- we’re not going to kid anyone into thinking that it has the prestige of Cannes or Venice or even Austin or Locarno --but it is, year-on-year, climbing up the ranks of the regional second-tier festivals that tend, by nature of being in the shadow of their larger and better known counterparts, to pursue a slightly different agenda . In Marrakech’s case it is, unsurprisingly, the championing of Morocco's film industry on the one hand, and the promotion of Marrakech internationally as a tourist destination on the other.
While due deference was paid to the former goal, with popular local actors and directors honored and homegrown films shown in and out of competition, it would be disingenuous to ignore the latter aim, because a lot of what made the Festival so enjoyable for the attending press and public alike was its, well, festiveness – the nightly red carpets, the immaculately organized tribute parties and plush galas, and the fact that every event seemed to take place at another exquisitely luxurious hotel. All of this seemed specifically designed to impress visitors, and it worked. But if at times the atmosphere of wealth and privilege started to feel a little rarefied, one only had to step out to the Jamaa el Fna square where the public evening screenings were held, or spend a few moments milling in the crowds clustered around the red-carpet area outside the Palais to experience the incredible level of local support for the festival.
It really can’t be stressed enough: having attended a few smaller, local festivals in our time, rarely have we seen anything like the on-the-ground excitement that was in evidence in Marrakech. When venerable Moroccan actor Mohamed Bastaoui, recipient of one of the tributes given out over the week (Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan and director Terry Gilliam were among the others thus honoured) arrived, the Beatlemania-style scenes that ensued were kind of unbelievable – it would be somewhat equivalent (if we can show our Irish roots here) to, say, Brendan Gleeson getting mobbed by a hysterically adoring crowd at the Dublin Film Festival; it just wouldn’t happen. (Which is not a comment on Gleeson, mind you). We don’t want to overstate the conclusions we can draw about cultural differences as a result of this carefully curated week-and-a-bit in a foreign country, but it is true that the raucously outgoing, refreshingly genuine, mostly good-natured grass-roots enthusiasm for the festival was an eye-opener, and contributed a great deal to the celebratory atmosphere.
Which is good, because in the lexicon of film festivals, few words are as overused as “celebrate.” We are constantly reminded that we are here to celebrate a person’s career, to celebrate a director’s contribution, or to celebrate even something as nebulous as a ‘national cinema’ (a strangely ill-defined tribute award was given to “the younger generation of Mexican filmmakers” which was odd). But of course, mostly, what we were there to celebrate, was cinema itself. So, then, what of the films?
The competition line-up, honestly, was one of the few disappointments of the festival, but this being, you know, a film festival, it was a pretty major one. While we sympathize with the difficulties of being a lesser-recognised event that happens at the end of the year and can’t necessarily compete for big premieres or prestige additions, beyond all that, the programming ethos still seemed a trifle bizarre. The decision to include mostly first or second features (of the 15 competition films, only one was from a more experienced filmmaker) was no doubt laudable and ostensibly formed the backbone of the rationale behind the selections. But either there is a depressing homogeneity of tone in the work of fledgling filmmakers from around the world, or there was also a secondary thematic agenda being pursued, consciously or unconsciously: there was little levity to be had, and rather a surfeit of really quite spectacularly depressing films about women in impossible or tragic circumstances.
The rather lackluster standard of these often hard-slog films was reflected in the apparent ease with which the features jury came to its decisions for prizes. Kusturica, interviewed briefly on the red carpet prior to the closing ceremony responded to the hopeful question “did you find it difficult to come to an agreement?” with a curt “No. The decisions were all unanimous.” Sigourney Weaver used the "U" word too to describe the short film award decisions over which she had presided: claiming unanimity on these occasions seemed to be the diplomatic way of saying that few films stood out, really stood out, and not a lot of debate was needed, which was our own experience of the competition entries too. Kusturica then skillfully evaded the inevitable direct question about the standard of the entries by reverting to the ol’ “celebration of cinema” thing, again reinforcing just how useful that phrase is, and how nebulous its meaning.
The awards themselves, therefore, were mostly uncontroversial, and the winners you could kind of spot a mile off: “Snowtown” won both Best Actor for Daniel Henshall and the Jury Prize, and while it’s not necessarily something we’ll rush out to see again with popcorn and a date, it is undeniably powerful (you can read our Cannes review here). The Jury prize for Direction went to Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio for “Seven Acts of Mercy,” while the Grand Prize went to the Danish “Out of Bounds” which, full disclosure, was one of the films we had to miss due to other commitments (typical). Joslyn Jensen deservedly won Best Actress for “Without” which was one of the very few competition films that really floated this particular writer’s boat (again, we posted a review earlier this year). Overall it’s not lost on us that the winners were films that mostly did not deal with the otherwise omnipresent themes of rape, genocide, homelessness, prostitution and the subjugation of women. Weighty themes do not necessarily good movies make: those themes in the hands of novice filmmakers too often became stultifyingly overearnest. We really hope the programmers take note for next year.
But there was one last surprising element to our time in lovely Marrakech, something we hadn’t bargained on, and are somewhat abashed that it only now occurs to us: in Morocco we got a privileged glimpse of how various nationalities outside of the West interact with each others’ cinema. As a mainly U.S.-centric blog, if we consider the cinema of foreign countries at all it is usually in relation to our own: who’s in the running for the best foreign film Oscar, which obscure, 6-hour-long subtitled film can we impress our film buff friends by having endured this week, etc. But only rarely do we talk about how other countries’ national cinemas interrelate, as though we’re tacitly assuming that all roads lead to Rome, or rather, L.A. Discovering the level of local Moroccan support for Bollywood films, for example, was an unexpected fillip; during the tumultuous tribute to Shah Rukh Khan, basically the Tom Cruise of Bollywood, mention was made of the number of Moroccans who have learned Hindi through those films. And while the aforementioned tribute to the new generation of Mexican filmmakers was a little unfocused, it still represented a genuine link forged despite language barriers and geographical inconvenience between two national film cultures. This proof that alliances of cinematic culture, often exclusive of the English-speaking world, might be springing up between seemingly the most disparate of nations was invigorating and kind of revelatory, in a “duh, well, of course, you unthinking, monoculturally-programmed imbecile” sort of way.
Ultimately, our time in Marrakech was spent under a charmed star (then, later, the most incredible full moon). It was the kind of sumptuously appointed affair that makes all the attendees, even the lowly hack bloggers, feel like VIPs. We were even driven around in black cars with customized Film Festival license plates: I’m fairly sure that had we committed a murder in one of those cars, some sort of royally-mandated diplomatic immunity would have protected us from prosecution (the festival is under the patronage of King Mohammed VI). So we hope we haven’t been churlish in our descriptions of any shortcomings, the fact is so much is right about the festival that the kinks in the programming this year seem like they’d be no biggie to iron out for next. And we’re grateful, for the hospitality we experienced, the level of access we were granted, and the incidental insights into film cultures not our own that we gained: yes, Marrakech ’11 was a wonderful experience. Almost without noticing we were doing it, I think we may have ended up “celebrating cinema” just a little bit.
Follow these links for our Marrakech '11 coverage: Jean-Jacques Annaud, "Black Gold" review, Terry Gilliam 1, Terry Gilliam 2, Olga Kurylenko 1, Olga Kurylenko 2, Forest Whitaker 1, Forest Whitaker 2, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jessica Chastain 1, Jessica Chastain 2, Sigourney Weaver 1, Sigourney Weaver 2, "Land of Oblivion," "180 Degrees" reviews