With the kind of fearlessness usually reserved for her acting, Isabelle Huppert, jury president of this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival, both surprised and delighted attendees by starting her inaugural speech in sound Arabic before finishing it in her native French.
Huppert’s bilingual dexterity set the tone for a determinedly inclusive festival, during which 87 films from all five continents were screened, replete with layers of English, French and Arabic subtitles. Other linguistic feats of this 14th edition, which ended last week, included Danish-American actor Viggo Mortensen switching fluently between French, Arabic and Spanish in Far From Men — French director David Oelhoffen’s adaptation of an Albert Camus short story — and Dutch director Jan-Willem van Ewijk’s Arabic-language Atlantic about a windsurfer who sets out to sail from Morocco to Europe.
After celebrating Scandinavian cinema last year, it was the turn of Japan to receive the red-carpet treatment, with modern masters such as Hirokazu Koreeda and Kyoshi Kurosawa in attendance. However, the star ticket for most locals had to be ageing Egyptian heartthrob Adel Emam, whose rapturous reception at the teeming Jemaa el-Fna square — where his latest film Alzheimer’s screened — must have brought back some misty-eyed memories of his trademark slapstick humour.
You take your levity where you can find it at a festival that stuck a bit too grimly to a template of unremitting gloom. The main competition, where first-time films predominated, struck this lily-livered festivalgoer as dour beyond the call of duty.
Rather more tempting was the enticingly named Cinema at Heart sidebar, where two films with Moroccan subjects stood out: Van Ewijk’s aforementioned Atlantic and documentary film-maker Tala Hadid’s first feature-length fiction film, The Narrow Frame of Midnight.
The inspiration for Van Ewijk’s second film came to him several years ago while he was still working as an investment banker in London. During his summer holidays, the 44-year-old, who is now a full-time film-maker, often travelled to the Atlantic coast of Morocco to go windsurfing. “A lot of us European surfers went to this little village called Moulay Bouzerktoun, where we befriended the locals,” Van Ewijk says. “We often left behind broken boards or wind sails and were kind of surprised to find when we came back a year or two later that the locals had repaired everything and had started to windsurf themselves . . . some of them had got really good at it.”
It was when Van Ewijk went back to Moulay one winter in the windsurfing off-season that Atlantic began to take shape in his mind. “During the summer, we had instilled in the locals all these dreams of another life but when I came back in the winter there was no wind and they had all gone back to fishing,” he says. “A lot of them got depressed because, after this mini-colonisation that took place in the summer, the village completely emptied in the winter. When I saw this I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a story here’, and I started to think of a movie about one of these guys who just gets on his board and goes.”
In the mornings Van Ewijk would work on his script over breakfast in one of Moulay’s little restaurants. One day, a waiter, Abdelhadi Samih, came over and asked him if he was writing a script. “How do you know that?” said a disconcerted Van Ewijk. “I can tell because you look sad and then you look happy and then you look sad when you are looking at your screen,” replied Samih, who revealed himself to be a nascent playwright. “When I had finished telling him what my story was about, Abdelhadi looked at me and said, ‘I think this is a story about absence,’ ” recalls Van Ewijk. “I’d never thought about it that way. From there it naturally flowed into him becoming my co-writer.”
The idea of a globally diverse independent cinema is one that also fits Hadid’s The Narrow Frame of Midnight. London-born Hadid’s intersecting story about a Moroccan orphan girl who is abducted and a Moroccan/Iraqi writer’s quest to find his brother amid the ruins of war is a miracle of multiculturalism. Hadid herself is half-Moroccan and half-Iraqi; the leading actor Khalid Abdalla (who also starred in 2007’s The Kite Runner) is an Egyptian who was born in Glasgow; the leading actress Marie-Josée Croze is Canadian; and the film’s painterly cinematographer, Alexander Burov, is Russian. The film was co-produced by US, Moroccan, UK and French companies.
“One of the pleasures of making the film was not the multiculturalism per se, but that we were a range of individuals in different contexts all fighting to tell new kinds of stories, and that made us find each other,” says Abdalla. “That applies particularly to this side of the world, where stories are often told about us by other people that have nothing to do with our experiences.”
The Narrow Frame of Midnight’s American co-producer Danny Glover, sitting round the same table as Hadid and Abdalla, gave a soft grunt by way of approbation. Glover became famous as an actor playing a world-weary cop in the Lethal Weapon franchise and is now chief executive of New York-based Louverture Films. Since founding the company in 1999 with business partner Joslyn Barnes, Glover has been a notable supporter of African cinema, going so far as to dip into his own resources when Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène was struggling to raise funds to complete his last film Moolaadé (2004).
“I wish my pockets were deeper; I’d fund everything,” Glover says with a joyous laugh. “My career has gone a certain way and it has always been about finding the stories and expressing the struggles you want to tell. And for me that’s what world cinema is all about: finding a common struggle.”
This common struggle can become a lengthy business: altogether it took seven years for the producers of The Narrow Frame of Midnight to raise the roughly $1m that Hadid needed to make her film on a shoestring. “There’s a reason why this type of storytelling in our film is difficult to fund,” says Abdalla. “That’s because it reflects very clearly on economic, social and political realities in our world.”
When the money finally did arrive, half of it came from the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre (CCM), the nation’s film regulatory body. It is one of the reasons that more and more foreign-based Moroccan film directors such as Hadid, who previously lived in London and New York, have decided the best place to pursue their careers is in Morocco.
“Perhaps young Moroccan film-makers now think it is easier to make their films here than elsewhere,” says the CCM’s managing director Sarim Fassi Fihri. “Or perhaps it’s because the stories they can tell here are the ones that resonate most strongly with them.”
And the winners are …
This year’s Golden Star for best film was won by Russian director Ivan Tverdovsky’s debut fiction feature Corrections Class about the callous treatment of a group of disabled teenagers in a Russian high school. Loosely based on Ekaterina Murashova’s novel of the same name, the Russian-German co-production signalled its pedigree by winning the Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s East of the West Award this year.
The Jury Prize, or runner-up spot, was taken by Swiss director Simon Jaquemet’s Chrieg, which also has its focus on teens, in this case disenfranchised youths suffering through a boot camp in the Swiss Alps. Jaquemet’s often violent first feature, redolent of Lord of the Flies, also scooped the best actor award for Benjamin Lutzke as one of the disgruntled teenagers.
The best actress award went to France’s Clotilde Hesme as a mother confined to a caravan through illness in Alix Delaporte’s The Last Hammer Blow, which previously cropped up in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
Hesme, one of France’s most accomplished young actresses, won the César Award for Most Promising Actress in 2010 for Angèle et Tony. She was also seen to good effect as a grieving wife in the back-from-the-dead French TV series The Returned, which screened in the UK on Channel 4 last year.
Photographs: WireImage; Reuters
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