All’s well in Ouallywood

The glitz and glamour of this year’s 10th anniversary celebrations for the Marrakech International Film Festival, which began on December 3, saw a red carpet awash with old Hollywood royalty – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Caan and jury president John Malkovich. Harvey Keitel joins Caan in the list of specially honoured film personalities, as do the Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the Morrocan Mohammed Abderrahman Tazi.

In addition, the festival line-up includes rising French stars such as Guillaume Canet, Marion Cotillard, Lambert Wilson and director Xavier Beauvois.

This year’s special focus on France comes as no surprise, but seems to indicate a new confidence in relation to the former colonial power. And with the film world’s attention briefly focused on Morocco, the country has its chance to display the current state of its film industry. To all appearances, it has never been healthier, with 18 Moroccan feature films produced this year compared with three or four movies six years ago. Eighty short films were also produced in 2010 compared with the five or six made in 2004.

Moroccan feature filmmakers can now tap into a domestic film fund which offers advances of between £250,000 and £340,000 on future ticket sales. Hollywood cash and technical training has also played a large part in this renaissance. In 2008 just over £70m was ploughed into the local economy from foreign film productions shooting on Moroccan soil (with £22m of that total coming from the Jerry Bruckheimer production Prince of Persia).

This was a huge leap from the £22.3m garnered in 2005. The global recession saw figures drop off in 2009 and 2010 but Nourreddine Sail, head of the country’s main film body, the Moroccan Cinema Centre, and vice-president of the Marrakech Film Festival, is confident things will pick up over the next two years.

Sail says he is expecting Ridley Scott to start shooting his next film, the upcoming Alien prequel, at the country’s southern Ouarzazate film studios next February and March. He is also confident that film projects from Germany, France and Scandinavia will reach fruition.

Four hours drive from Marrakech, Ouarzazate offers desert plains, intoxicating kasbahs and the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, which have provided an epic back-drop for Hollywood films ever since David Lean came here for Lawrence of Arabia in the early 1960s.

One of the most impressive sites is the amazingly detailed Jerusalem set, built out of plaster, sack cloth and wood, which Ridley Scott commissioned for Kingdom of Heaven on some 80 acres of arid land. Scott also shot much of Gladiator and Body of Lies in the same region, leading our waggish guide to joke that he must have a Moroccan mistress tucked away somewhere.

Two of the most recent films to shoot in and around Ouarzazate – or “Ouallywood” as it has come to be known – were Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010) where the rocky outcrops stood in for Tibet and Xavier Beauvois’ Cannes Grand Prix winner Of Gods and Men which made great use of the Atlas Mountains for an Algerian setting.

Both of these films are indicative of how Morocco has become an ideal destination for film producers looking to reproduce foreign settings in a country that has created a stable political climate since Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne in 1999.

“The Moroccan film industry is really alive, and not just financially speaking,” says Sail. “Our film industry represents a nation that is growing in confidence to express itself. This presupposes liberty of expression, liberty of imagination and liberty of creation.”

There has also been a relaxing of mores which meant that when Dubai insisted on a title change for Sex and the City 2 if it was to shoot on its territory and the film’s producers refused, Morocco immediately stepped into the breach.

Women directors have also started to play a more prominent role in a Moroccan film industry which used to be dominated by men. This year’s Dh300,000 (£23,000) prize for best short film at the Marrakech Film Festival was won by Mahassine El Hachadi for her student short Apnée.

“Morocco’s goal is to be a reliable player in world cinema, something that cannot really be said for the rest of the African and Arab worlds,” says Sail. “In Morocco we now have some highly reputed executive production outfits which can be very reassuring for foreign film companies.”

John Malkovich, who will oversee the choice of best feature film in an art-house-driven main competition dominated by first-time directors, believes that Morocco’s reputation as an international film hub will continue to grow.

“You have quite a forward-thinking royal family, within the constraints of course that are imposed on them, not necessarily by them,” says Malkovich, who first came to Morocco in 1989 to film Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky.

Malkovich, who has since returned five or six times to Morocco and is a keen collector of North African, mostly Moroccan, fabrics, adds: “The expat contingent is growing and there are people moving back to Marrakech, like Moroccans from France. I haven’t been back to Tangier since 2004 when I was here briefly with [director] Manoel de Oliveira [for Talking Book] but even the outskirts of Tangier had changed quite a lot.”

He is less enthused, though, by Hollywood’s failure to finance films about native cultures for what they are and not what they think they should be. “That’s something I profoundly dislike, this kind of ‘gringo’ film complex: ‘Let’s go somewhere exotic and do a film about some white people with exotic colour’,” says Malkovich, whose only film as a director to date was the South American-set The Dancer Upstairs (2002) which starred Javier Bardem and Spanish-speaking actors.

Yet the Moroccan film director Faouzi Bensaïdi, who is a member of the festival’s jury, believes such attitudes are changing. It’s a viewpoint he no longer feels very threatened by. Bensaïdi, whose first film A Thousand Months won the Premier Regard prize at Cannes in 2003 and who is preparing to shoot his third feature, believes that the world is shifting on its axis. “We are starting to look to ourselves, not to outsiders, for a reflection of this part of the world,” he says.

The Marrakech Film Festival ends on Saturday

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