Lights, Cameras, Action

Nick Pinkerton at the 13th International Film Festival of Marrakech

Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida, 2013, black-and-white, sound, 80 minutes.

A VISIT TO THE OPULENT, often garish International Film Festival of Marrakech (FIFM), which ran for nine days at the beginning of this December, invites one burning question: Are heaps of money all that it takes to create a real film festival?

Now in its thirteenth year, FIFM was created by order of His Majesty the King Mohammed the Sixth, Commander of the Faithful, who has been on the throne for approximately fourteen years. (His son, Prince Moulay Rachid, is the festival’s president.) The Moroccan royal family have heaps of dirhams to throw around, and they’ve put some of their money into a film festival, their own private Cannes in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, complete with nightly red carpet photo ops and many of the event management personnel imported from Cannes itself. I envisioned the waving of a jeweled scepter as somehow involved in the creation of FIFM, though really the circumstances of its founding aren’t so different from those around the founding of most festivals, save that instead of a monarch, the edict otherwise comes from a coordinated confluence of corporate interests.

FIFM is one element in a concerted, across-the-board effort by Mohammed VI to attract outside investment in Morocco, a project which is visible in every aspect of Moroccan life, including the broad swaths of freshly cleared waste ground in Marrakech and Casablanca fronted by signs which illustrate the COMING SOON condos meant to lure European retirees and tax refugees. No expense was spared to dazzle the festival’s guests, many of them invited with the express purpose of adding their own dazzle to the proceedings. There were lavish parties featuring meat sizzling on outdoor braziers and rooms upon rooms lined, Versailles-like, with tables groaning under the weight of ornamental pastries. There were welcoming committees on horseback in traditional Berber dress and, on opening night, a processional through a corridor of liveried men and women playing badly out-of-tune violins. There were open bars, tap dancers, and cover bands grinding through the Rihanna songbook. The openhandedness extended to the collection of a high-profile international jury, whose number included Marion Cotillard, Park Chan-wook, Paolo Sorrentino, Fatih Akin, and head Martin Scorsese, who were present for every screening of the fifteen in-competition films. Cannes has nine jurors, so of course FIFM has ten.

The Étoile d’Or grand prize would eventually go to a South Korean film, first-time writer-director Lee Su-jin’s Han Gong-ju, which has a strong performance by teenaged Chun Woo-hee in the title role but is hobbled by the shopworn narrative hook around which it’s structured, the slow reveal of the past trauma that haunts the character, a device drawn out like some queasy striptease. The Jury Award was shared by Cuban Carlos Machado Quintela’s Swimming Pool and Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature, Blue Ruin, the lone US selection. Salunier is perhaps better known as a cinematographer, having shot Matthew Porterfield’s Baltimore-set films Putty Hill (2010) and I Used to Be Darker (2013). Blue Ruin, set in Salunier’s native Virginia, has some of those films’ same gift for catching local color and the specifics of room tone in distinctly American spaces: a seedy boardwalk, a heavy metal bar, or an off-the-main-road family compound which shows the marks of generations of accreted family history. The story concerns a drifter (Macon Blair) who, when the man responsible for his parents’ deaths is released from prison, sets out to take revenge, reigniting a Hatfield-McCoy-like fatal family feud. Salunier’s film doesn’t achieve the “sins of the fathers” pathos aspired to by the final showdown, but for much of its runtime it keeps its nose down, and is a good, gritty, process-oriented actioner with a throwback 1970s vibe.

Han Gong-ju showed at Busan, while Blue Ruin had been a director’s fortnight entry at Cannes in May, where it picked up the Prix de la FIPRESCI. Not a great deal of credence is given to premiere status by FIFM’s programmers, and given this freedom one wonders why the bill of fare isn’t a bit stronger. The first weekend of films was particularly dire, including The Wishful Thinkers from Spain, one of those Euro movies that seem to have no purpose other than letting the oh-so-civilized characters show off their bookshelves, or Roberto Ando’s Viva la Liberta, a mistaken-identity comedy in which the leader of Italy’s liberal opposition party disappears and is replaced by his holy fool twin brother (Toni Servillo), a smug, reassuring coddle perpetuating the flattering canard that the world’s problems are really oh-so-simple.

In festival-going, a certain tension begins to mount the longer that you have to wait to see the first thing that you really like. In this particular case, my dry spell was broken by Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, set in ca. 1960 Poland, a film that stood head and shoulders above anything else in competition. And in a literal sense, Ida is actually an extraordinarily tall movie. Shooting in icily rimmed black-and-white and with the too-little-utilized 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, Pawlikowski exploits the boxy frame, composing to emphasize the canopying space over characters. The dimple-chinned Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida, an orphaned novice nun who ventures into the world to meet the aunt that she never knew she had (Agata Kulesza), a dissolute communist judge who informs Ida of her Jewish heritage, and takes her on a pilgrimage to find her parents’ graves. (When, after sampling earthly temptations, Ida puts her habit back on and returns to take her vows, it was interesting to note the crowd bursting into scattered applause.)

Lisa Langseth, Hotell, 2013, color, sound, 97 minutes.

I’ll put in a brief word for Lisa Langseth’s Hotell, a lightly likable tragicomic actor’s exercise from Sweden, but there weren’t many revelations on the order of Ida. Then again, the competition programming really wasn’t the main event here. There were nightly tributes—each accompanied by a repertory program—including a blowout dedicated to Scandinavian cinema, held on a stage decorated something like a game-show set, each tribute a pretext to bring still more famous faces to Marrakech. There were also several “master classes” in which visiting filmmakers were invited to hold court, with this year’s invitees including Bruno Dumont, James Gray—a fantastically funny raconteur—and Nicolas Winding Refn. Abbas Kiarostami, who’d been scheduled to visit, had to bow out due to illness, though for some reason, Gaspar Noé, who had no official business, was seen shuffling about.

To say that the competition slate wasn’t the main event isn’t to suggest that the festival was a mirage. While the socialites who packed the tributes filed out once the lights went down and an actual movie began, only reappearing at the next open bar, among the flocks of journalists at the master classes there were plenty of students asking eager and perspicacious questions. Even if this festival was created by royal decree rather than in response to an overwhelming demand by the voice of the people, it seems to have fostered film culture in Marrakech and Morocco, and this cannot be a bad thing. Though Ouarzazate, over a hundred miles to the southeast of Marrakech, has long been a welcoming home for runaway productions—Scorsese’s own Kundun (1997), as well as a number of Ridley Scott’s films were shot there—the indigenous industry seems to have received a shot in the arm from the fest, and found a receptive audience at home. (It’s worth noting that the Criterion Collection recently released a six-disc set of films restored by Scorsese’s own “World Cinema Project,” including Trances, a 1981 Moroccan film by Ahmed El Maânouni.)

At the first screening of Traitors, a US-Moroccan co-production directed by Sean Gullette, the writer-star of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), the massive main theater in the Palais Des Congrès was packed. (The movie was a satisfying if somewhat on-the-nose crime thriller starring the charismatic Chaimae Ben Acha as the frontwoman of an all-girl punk band—there was a palpable ripple in the crowd when they performed a song called “I’m So Bored with Morocco,” whose lyrics referred to the nouveau riche as well as to endemic graft and corruption.) And while the competition films and tributes were housed in the Palais, there were also nightly outdoor screenings at Jemaa el-Fna, the famous, teeming market square located in Medina, the old, intermural section of Marrakech. One night I arrived just in time to watch a car-chase scene hectically cut in the style of a contemporary Hollywood actioner, shot near where I was standing, in the narrow alleyways that honeycomb Medina. The film, titled Kanyamakan and directed by a Los Angeles Film School graduate named Said C. Naciri, looked like pretty boilerplate slam-bang straight-to-DVD stuff, but the guy I talked to at an orange juice stall gave it a rave review, a précis that also happens to encapsulate the International Film Festival of Marrakech: “Beaucoup d’action!”

The International Film Festival of Marrakech ran November 29–December 7.