James’ Joys: a roundup of the Marrakech Film Festival

The 17th International Marrakech Film Festival has come to its glorious end, and I will say: this edition has seriously been nothing but stellar. I haven’t seen a single weak film in competition and, being the completist that I am always striving to be, I did manage to see all competition entries save for one (The Giraffe by Ahmed Magdy, which I was told was a solid debut by critics/colleagues). And when you put into perspective the fact that it is a debut and sophomore features only competition, it’s even more of an achievement. After a one-year hiatus, the Festival was really back with a force! James Gray’s emotional gushing over the selection on the stage of the Closing Ceremony prior to handing out his almost impeccable jury’s awards was another clear testimony to the masterful curating and selecting work of the new programming team. Giving credit where credit is due, Christoph Terhechte (the former Head of the Forum sidebar section in Berlin) has literally revived the Festival with his impressive line-up of 14 competition entries, special and gala screenings (At Eternity’s Gate, Burning, Roma, Capernaum, Green Book, Wildlife, Rafiki, Birds of Passage, Yomeddine, read my review here, and more) playing to full rooms with lively Q&As; the triumphant new series Conversations with A-list world talent (I mean, just look at that list: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Guillermo del Toro, Thierry Frémaux, Agnès Varda, Yousry Nasrallah and Cristian Mungiu); and a solid new Panorama section of Moroccan cinema that also drew a large audience. There was something for everyone!

There’s no such thing as a perfect Palmarès, but I couldn’t be more ecstatic about the Etoile d’Or recipient seeing that Joy is a film for which we had fought passionately to obtain the World Premiere at Giornate degli Autori (I am also a consultant for this Venetian sidebar independent section), where Sudabeh Mortezai’s sophomore film won two awards (Label Europa and Hearst) after Macondo, her Berlinale debut competition entry in 2014. Her sad, timely and devastating film on human trafficking and Nigerian prostitutes in Vienna struggling against the Madams (former prostitutes turned into pimps!) won everybody over in Marrakech. And I would say that her victory came as no surprise to me after talking with some jurors who had hinted at the passion the film had received (I won’t name names, don’t worry!). You can read an interview I did with the director a few days before her Etoile d’Or here.

Despite this fabulous and indisputable Etoile d’Or, I was a bit saddened that the best-directed film of the entire competition for me, Rojo, had to leave Marrakech totally empty-handed. This multi-layered political (noir) thriller was admired by everybody and their mother in Marrakech… save for James Gray’s jury eventually. But Benjamin Naishtat can find consolation with his flamboyant Best Director award in San Sebastian back in September. I didn’t really share everybody’s enthusiasm for The Load (Ognjen Glavonić) but if there is one element of unequivocal praise there, it would undoubtedly be its direction. So that was a deserving Best Director award somehow.

Let’s move on to the Best Actor award!

On my plane to Marrakech, I was sitting next to this very charismatic guy and we started chatting. He told me he was an actor and had a film in competition and was planning to spend the whole fest there. I promised him I would see his film and wished him good luck. Then we kept bumping into one another during the fest at various events. When I sent my last interview requests to the international press PRs, I put his name down on my list (he would have been the one and only actor I interviewed during the whole fest!) but sadly I had to cancel said interview since it would have conflicted with a film I really couldn’t miss. That actor was no other than Nidhal Saadi, the Marrakech Film Fest Best Actor winner for his tour-de-force performance in Look at Me! I did manage to catch a second screening of his film in the end, and his turn as a chauvinistic father always on the verge of a nervous breakdown just blew me away. Nejib Belkadhi’s heart-rending film on autism raises the question of one’s responsibility as a parent when faced with game-changing life situations (Lofti, the character played by Saadi, had abandoned both wife and son and fled to France after learning about his son’s disease, only to return to Tunisia seven years later when his ex-wife falls into a coma, thus having to deal with that autistic child ultimately…). There is a bit of a young Al Pacino in Saadi’s telluric force on the silver screen and I’m sure we will see a lot of him in the coming years. Believe it or not, Look at Me is his first feature film as an actor (and on a side-note, the Best Actress recipient was a newcomer as well).

A few minutes before the start of the Closing Ceremony, while I was comfortably seated in the Palais des Congrès, a guy in his impeccable tuxedo suddenly stops in front of me, shakes my hand and asks me whether I had had the chance to see his film in the end. That was Nidhal Saadi again and I wished him good luck… AGAIN! Less than an hour later, James Gray announces the Best Actor winner and Nidhal Saadi goes wild with joy behind me, stands up, walks past me and winks at me with an illuminated smile. I never interviewed him but we had come full circle!

Whilst the field of Best Actor contenders wasn’t particularly crowded, there truly was an embarrassment of riches when it came to Best Actress. That award could easily have been given to at least six other actresses. For their Best Actress award, James Gray and his jury decided to opt for a newcomer too, the German revelation Aenne Schwarz in All is Good by Eva Trobisch. Watch my video of Schwarz winning the award here. In the lead role of a tormented young woman who doesn’t want to see herself as a victim after being raped, Aenne Schwarz is phenomenal. There is a Cassavetian vibe to her acting and the vitality and urgency with which she fights for her life and dignity is extraordinary. Equally extraordinary was Mary Kay Place in Diane (my personal Best Actress winner). Read my interview here with the NYFF and Diane director, the sweet and captivating Kent Jones, where he goes on at length and raves (as we all have!) his phenomenal leading actress Mary Kay Place, for whom I predict a critics/critical sweep next year when IFC releases the film in the US. She’s that undeniable, mark my words!

Last but not least, the Jury Prize went to the boisterously ecstatic Lila Avilés for The Chambermaid, a Mexican debut. Watch my viral video of when she discovers her victory! The Latin American presence in Marrakech, in competition or outside it, was undeniably strong, and that jury could not not attest to such a presence. The strength of this Dardennes-like feminist portrayal of a chambermaid in Mexico relies entirely on its unsentimentality and almost Akermanian way (Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, specifically) of depicting the daily routines at this luxurious Mexico hotel and the subsequent alienation of workers in said envinronment. While it won’t be an easy sit for general audiences, it’s a slow-burner that keeps impressing on the festival circuit after TIFF and San Sebastian.

But maybe the best proof of the competition’s exceptional quality is to be found in that unique presentation of each director in attendance at the Closing Ceremony (basically all save for one, the Mexican female director Alejandra Márquez Abella for The Good Girls, who we were told was pregnant), that James Gray kindly asked each one of his co-jurors to name to honour the quality of their work. See my video of Gray’s discourse here.

I would like to single out two very special films that James Gray and his jury didn’t manage to find room for in their Palmarès, but that deserve, nay, require absolute attention nonetheless: Urgent by Mohcine Besri and Vanishing Days by Zhu Xin, respectively. The former for miraculously merging Morettian humor and Loachian realism in his tragi-comical depiction of the Kafkaesque healthcare system in Morocco (read my two-part interview with Besri here and here), and the latter for its arresting visual beauty and poetry (reminiscent of Weerasethakul) in following the Proustian musings of a young Chinese girl.

Being on the critics side of things (ICS President) and not the Industry one (Giornate degli Autori consultant) this time around at the festival, I did not attend the Atlas Workshops under the coordination of Rémi Bonhomme, program manager of the Semaine La Critique in Cannes, but was told nonetheless by my friends Karel Och, Nadia Turincev and Teresa Cavina that it was a very successful event. Hassen Ferhani’s Kilometers 60 won the top post-production prize. Inadelso Cossa’s The Nights Still Smell of Gunpowder won the Development prize and Aida Elkashef’s The Day I Ate the Fish won the NAAS prize for film circulation.

See you next year!

In memory of Richard Lormand.