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Pans & Tilts
Marrakech Int'l Film Festival
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Correspondent
Marrakech, the venue of Marrakech Int'l Film Festival, the former capital of Morocco.

Often international film festivals are platforms for political propaganda, tourist promotion and public relations exercises rather than strictly for artistic expression. The world's oldest festival at Venice became a powerful tool for Mussolini and the Fascists. So did the Italian festival for Hitler's nefarious ambitions. It was this brazen German-Italian politicization of Venice that provoked the French to start their own festival in 1939, but when Cannes began its inaugural roll on September 1, the German invasion of Poland followed by the French and British declaration of war against Hitler ended the first edition even before the curtain went up fully. It was only in 1946 that Cannes was re-launched, the French Riviera being chosen as the venue because of the excellent possibilities the city offered for tourism. In fact, the hoteliers there had as much a hand in getting the event to their city as the organizers. Today, the restaurants and hotels at Cannes do perhaps the year's best business at festival time in May, helped by the sun and the surf, and the warm spring/summer weather. Cannes' tourist inflow peaks at this point.

In fact, when the Indian Government was toying with the idea of a permanent place for its main festival, Panaji in Goa was finally zeroed in on because of the immense promise it held as a tourist destination and its coastline similarity with the French Riviera. It was felt that many tourists at Goa would turn movie-buffs and throng the festival.

Another festival at Marrakech in Morocco — a country that once transcended cultural barriers, especially in times of geopolitical crisis, through Michael Curtiz's 1942 classic, "Casablanca" — has used its Moorish art and décor hotels, winter sun and celebrity pull to carve out a niche for itself on the global festival map. Into its eighth year this time, the festival, the only one of consequence in the entire African continent, presented over a hundred films, 32 in its official sections from five continents.

The Marrakech International Film Festival, funded entirely by the country's ruling monarchy with Prince Moulay Rachid (King's brother) presiding over the nine-day run (though the management is with a French public relations firm, Le Public Systeme.), has been a boon not just for the fledgling Moroccan cinema industry, providing a voice for its directors, but also for the city's tourism. Its innumerable hotels and wayside eateries in the marketplace, known as Souk, come alive during the festival, the local cuisine spicing up the screen. Hotels go full, and the Souk looks like a mela with the festival crowds taking a breather between movies tucking in street food or haggling over the prices of native curios.

These street scenes or the expansive vistas or the awesome palaces, intricately designed and decorated in Islamic style, in Morocco have also played a part in cinema. They have been fabulous locales for both Moroccan and foreign films. Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone have used the country to shoot their works. Scott's latest CIA thriller, "Body of Lies" was filmed there. So was "Babel," a part of which takes places in Morocco. I wonder why Indians have been long in going there, given the country's huge "havelis'" that can provide enough fodder for ghostly stories or royal romances.

In fact, a Moroccan competition entry, "Kandisha," is a spooky tale of a woman who loses her little daughter to a hit-and-run driver and who begins a supernatural search for her through the spirit of Kandisha. This year, Marrakech had three Moroccan movies in its official categories – "Kandisha," "Amours Voilees" and "Tut e souviens d'Adil." And incredibly, there is no festival censorship in this kingdom, and I even saw a nude scene in "Amours Voilees."

Much like Cannes or Berlin or Toronto, the Marrakech festival invariably draws attention to the local film industry that has been trying hard to take the place of the sinking Egyptian show business. As Bruno Barde, Marrakech's Artistic Director and head of the Le Public Systeme, tells me that the festival is a great opportunity for Moroccan helmers and scriptwriters to learn how "to fish." This year's "fishing lessons" included master classes by directors Hugh Hudson, Andrei Konchalvsky and Agusti Villaronga inside Marrakech's brand new $ 6.4-million movie school.

Obviously, the monarchy wants to flaunt itself as a liberal nation (The Prince is extremely knowledgeable about this art, I am told.), where rigid Islamic laws are not enforced (women need not cover their heads, and many of them can be seen in daring Western wear) and where cinema would be synonymous with an open culture and society. Though a tiny movie producer with about 25 or so films a year, Morocco is undoubtedly far ahead of others in Africa, such as Tunisia or Algeria or Lebanon or even Egypt. This transparent culture, Barde quips, is not to be found even in Dubai, the seeds of which the King planted a decade ago when he envisaged a festival of world cinema. A kingdom that is ruled with the help of a Constitution and bicameral legislature, Morocco seems all set for great cinematic times.

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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