Officials of the Marrakech International Film Festival faced a challenging decision for their 20th anniversary: whether to proceed with the event or cancel it. The choice was far from simple, given the harsh realities they confronted: a world possibly teetering on the edge of war, the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in their country just two months prior to the festival, and the backdrop of other Middle Eastern film festivals canceling due to the conflict in Gaza.
Despite facing these formidable challenges, the officials of the Marrakech International Film Festival ultimately decided to forge ahead with the event. Their choice, complex and weighed down by the global tensions and local adversities they grappled with, was grounded in a collective commitment to supporting filmmakers and fostering the power of art in times of turmoil.
During the inaugural evening of the festival, American actor Jessica Chastain, serving in the role of jury president, articulated, “In the weeks leading up to the festival, we were not sure that we would even be able to be here. The world we share is shattered and devoured. Throughout history, art has been used as an accessible tool for communication, raising awareness about social issues and affecting positive change.”
Melita Toscan Du Plantier, director of the Marrakech International Film Festival, shared, “We know what’s happening and don’t forget it. But heart is important. Heart is a weapon against obscurity and against conflict. We’re here to talk about heart, show movies and talk about directors from this region.”
Notable among these were the Competition Films. The films vying for the festival’s prestigious awards such as the Festival’s Grand Prize—the Étoile d’Or. This coveted prize, accompanied by a $50,000 USD endowment, to be divided between the film’s producer and director. Other awards included the Jury Prize, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Director.
The festival’s diverse lineup extended to Cinema for Young Audiences, Gala Screenings, Moroccan Panorama, 11th Continent program, and Special Screenings. Additionally, the program featured the Atlas workshops and ten “Conversations with,” an intimate Q&A with festival officials and ten diverse directors and actors, as well as two special tributes, presenting the Étoile d’Or to esteemed film professionals Mad Mikkelson and Faouzi Bensaidi.
The six Gala Screenings unveiled regional premieres of some highly anticipated films. Italian director Matteo Garrone graced the festival with “I, Captain (Io Capitano),” a contemporary odyssey narrating the adventures of two Senegalese youths on their journey to Europe. Michel Franco presented “Memory,” a profoundly moving film enriched by an unforgettable performance from festival jury president Jessica Chastain. Ivan Sen’s “Limbo,” an ultra-stylish black-and-white thriller that showcased a transformative role for Australian actor Simon Baker. Étoile d’Or-winner Alexander Payne returned with “The Holdovers,” a tender comedy driven by a trio of deeply moving performances. Beloved Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaidi presented his film “Deserts” and was honored this year in a tribute and presented with the Étoile d’Or. Upon acceptance of the award, he eloquently stated, “The biggest blessing that God sent me on this earth is cinema and I’m forever thankful. Cinema and I are two spirits dwelling in one body.” The gala sessions closed with Cédric Kahn’s “Making Of,” a behind-the-scenes social comedy starring the irresistible Jonathan Cohen.
The 11th Continent program, consisting of thirteen groundbreaking drama and documentary films, initiated a conversation between modern films and classic masterpieces that have shaped the history of cinema. This curated selection showcased the latest creations from acclaimed filmmakers such as Kleber Mendonça Filho, Lisandro Alonso, and Mona Achache. Additionally, works by a new generation of audacious auteurs were introduced, including Alain Kassanda, Rosine Mbakam, Vlad Petri, and Eduardo Williams.
The Moroccan Cinema Panorama provided an opportunity to explore six recent drama and documentary films from Morocco. Notably, two of these films, Khalil Zairi’s “Mora Is Here” and Hicham Lasri’s “Moroccan Badass Girl,” made their world premieres. An important note here is the prominence of Moroccan cinema being celebrated this year featuring a total of 15 films across various sections.
In an effort to cultivate awareness among the film enthusiasts of the future, the Cinema for Young Audiences program showcased thirteen screenings specifically tailored for individuals aged 4 to 18.
Launched in 2018 by the Marrakech International Film Festival, the Atlas Workshops stand as an industry and talent-development program. This initiative facilitates collaboration between the Festival and a burgeoning cohort of Moroccan, Arab, and African filmmakers, fostering a dynamic platform for the interchange of ideas and experiences between global professionals and regional talents. This year, nine films, six of which are from Morocco, have received previous support from the Atlas Workshops.
The “In Conversation With…” series offered audiences a unique opportunity to engage with some of the most prominent figures in cinema worldwide. Ten leading personalities from the film industry, representing five continents, shared their insights, professional experiences, and inspiring anecdotes in spontaneous discussions with Festival audiences.
Featuring the Festival’s Étoile d’Or recipients: the compelling Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen; audience-favorite Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaïdi; the free-spirited French director Bertrand Bonello; legendary American actor Willem Dafoe; influential Indian filmmaker and producer Anurag Kashyap; singular Japanese director Naomi Kawase; intense Danish-American actor and director Viggo Mortensen; chameleonic Scottish actor Tilda Swinton; the versatile American actor and director Matt Dillon; and the multi-award-winning, widely respected Russian director and screenwriter Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Noteworthy moments to highlight were the commencement of the festival with an opening ceremony featuring a tribute to Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who received the Festival’s Étoile d’Or from American actor Willem Dafoe. Mads Mikkelsen conveyed his appreciation, remarking, “A decade ago, Marrakesh extended a warm welcome to Scandinavian filmmakers, honoring their contributions. This shared history has played a significant role in establishing our reputation, and we are sincerely thankful for their support.” This tribute was followed by a screening of Richard Linklater’s comedy “Hit Man”.
In the tribute to Faouzi Bensaïdi, the pure admiration and love that poured over him from the audience was heartwarming.
One of my personal favorite evenings was at the ceremony celebrating the 20th edition of the Marrakech Film Festival featuring a beautiful and inspiring documentary of clips from the festival over the last twenty years.
The final day concluded with the closing awards ceremony. In a historic first for the Festival, the Étoile d’Or was bestowed upon a Moroccan film, “The Mother of All Lies” by Asmae El Moudir. The Jury Prize was jointly awarded to another Moroccan film “Hounds” by Kamal Lazraq and “Bye Bye Tiberius,” a Palestine film by Lina Soualem.
Remarkably, all three winning films were participants in the Atlas Workshops, the Festival’s industry program initiated in 2018. Further establishing the platform’s significant role as an incubator for emerging talent from Africa and the Arab world.
The Best Directing Prize was presented to Senegalese writer and director Ramata-Toulaye Sy for her film “Banel & Adama.” Bosnian actress Asja Zara Lagumdzija received the Best Performance by an Actress award for her role in “Excursion” by Una Gunjak, while the award for Best Performance by an Actor went to Turkish actor Doga Karakas for his role in “Dormitory” by Nehir Tuna.
In conclusion, the 20th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival transcended the challenges posed by a world in turmoil, showcasing resilience, commitment, and the transformative power of cinema. Against the backdrop of global uncertainties and local adversities, the festival became a testament to the enduring spirit of art and its ability to bridge divides, raise awareness, and foster unity.
The diverse lineup of films, encompassing various genres and representing cultures from around the world, highlighted the festival’s dedication to providing a platform for emerging talents and celebrating the rich tapestry of global cinema. The decision of festival officials to proceed with the event, despite the formidable circumstances, reinforced the importance of supporting filmmakers and maintaining a space for creative expression in times of crisis.
Noteworthy moments, such as the historic awarding of the Étoile d’Or to a Moroccan film and the recognition of outstanding talents through the Jury Prize and other awards, added significant chapters to the festival’s legacy. The “In Conversation With…” series provided audiences with insights from prominent figures in cinema, fostering a deeper connection between the art form and its enthusiasts.
As the festival came to a close, the echoes of celebration, appreciation, and inspiration reverberated through the closing awards ceremony. The films that received accolades, particularly those incubated in the Atlas Workshops, underscored the festival’s role as a nurturing ground for emerging talents from Africa and the Arab world.
In its 20th year, the Marrakech International Film Festival not only celebrated its rich history through tributes and reflections but also looked forward, embracing the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the ever-evolving landscape of cinema. The closing awards ceremony marked not just the end of a nine-day cinematic extravaganza but a reaffirmation of the festival’s enduring mission to unite cultures, amplify diverse voices, and inspire a new generation of filmmakers and film enthusiasts.
As the curtains fell on this milestone edition, the Marrakech International Film Festival left an indelible mark, reminding us that, in the face of adversity, the language of cinema continues to resonate and inspire, fostering a shared understanding of the human experience. Until the next edition, the spirit of Marrakech’s celebration of film and cultural exchange will linger, echoing the festival’s commitment to the transformative and unifying power of storytelling.