Lebanese film ‘Very Big Shot’
Lebanese film ‘Very Big Shot’

The Marrakech International Film Festival reaches 15 this year. In a human life that would mean it is within sight of adulthood and prey to all sorts of feelings and anxieties that can no longer be called “innocent”.

Even allowing for the onset of adolescence in north Africa’s premier film festival, 2015 has proved a rough year. In the wake of Paris events, some invited celebrities cancelled their visits (including film-maker and jury member Thomas Vinterberg). Jury president Francis Ford Coppola and opening-night guest of honour Bill Murray both came armed with words about peace and understanding. The rest of us have been processed daily through security you wouldn’t believe. Bag searches, friskings, bomb scanners under taxis. And long queues for metal detectors. Groups of guests arriving for the first-night party felt, near-literally, like camels passing through needles’ eyes.

It was heroic of the festival to take place at all. It was heroic of us, at times, to be here. It is not easy to listen to Bill Murray, Hollywood’s superstar curmudgeon, waxing religio-mystical. “We are all manifestations of God . . . ” he waxed. Coppola spoke more rationally of the 13th-century Arab legacy of art, knowledge and civilisation, betrayed by some parts of modern Islam, before he too went on about God. “If you know the Koran, the first words are, I think: ‘In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful . . . ’”

After the opening salvos of meant-to-salve rhetoric, we started seeing the movies. Even here, 2015 remains 2015. There has been a film of red, as it were, over the films themselves: a scrim of raw awareness concerning the conflicts outside, impacting the images inside. Little films, modest in any other age, about violence, conflict or racial-cultural divide suddenly leapt at our attention and antennae.

Two thrillers set among Muslim characters, the French Braqueurs and the Lebanese Very Big Shot set audiences on their seat edges. The plots are ordinary enough: gangs, drug deals, betrayals, shoot-outs. But today there’s an extra edginess to each inter-ethnic boil-up. And a cheer went up from native spectators at the French film’s last shot, simply showing the surviving petty-criminal “heroes” reaching port in their Moroccan homeland. Euphoria is fine. But this us-versus-them, or Africa-versus-Europe, audience response had a slightly alarming intensity.

Olmo Omerzu’s Family Film from the Czech Republic has no ethnic or inter-ethnic content. Yet this tale of family division and apparent tragedy — my favourite film in the festival — had its own surprising emotional reach. Is it because the parents who fecklessly leave their kids to take a far-flung holiday, and then go missing presumed dead, tugs at the bereavement emotions and touches off the sudden-calamity alarm bells to which we’re newly sensitive?

‘Family Film’ from the Czech Republic
‘Family Film’ from the Czech Republic

Best of the rest on Marrakech screens was the medium-scandalous Neon Bull from Brazil. Some audiences had already bristled at sexual content on screen. During Braqueurs a woman walked out raging in Arabic after a nude scene. But Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro provides the perfect panacea, you could contend, for world angst about terrorism. It’s a make-love-not-war movie. Hard to think of carnage during the polymorphous, anything-goes carnality displayed by the story’s rodeo-bull truckers.

If your jaw hasn’t dropped at the “grooming” of a well-endowed stallion to near climax (to pilfer its precious semen), you’re sure to gasp — or goggle steamily — at the erotic antics of the dim but studdish hero, his promiscuous girlfriend and a passing, heavily pregnant perfume vendeuse. A prolonged last-scene coupling between two of those characters passes through pornography into a crazed, prelapsarian innocence. That, plus the tragicomical panache, empowers the whole film.

‘Neon Bull’ from Brazil
‘Neon Bull’ from Brazil

Even with good films, and even with defiant speeches, this might still seem a precarious time to stage a cinema junket in a Muslim land. Yet Sarim Fassi Fihri, vice-president of the festival, insisted to me that Marrakech 2015 had never been in doubt as an event.

“You know, our first festival was held in 2001, within two weeks of the events of 9/11. Even then we did not cancel. The King himself said we must keep the festival. The security is considerable this year, of course, but that is partly to reassure those attending. The real security is intelligence, preventing what can happen before it happens.

“I respect those who stayed away for family or other reasons. But today, unfortunately, fear is everywhere. It is not just in Arab countries, but in Paris, Madrid, London . . . ” He also insists the acts of militant Islam will not poison Muslim culture and cinema themselves. “Look what our jury president, Mr Coppola, says. He knows about true Islam and its history, and that it is not represented by these people.”

French thriller ‘Braqueurs’
French thriller ‘Braqueurs’

I sought out Mr Coppola himself, in the antiqued Islamic wonderland of the Hotel La Mamounia (past guests: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Alfred Hitchcock). For all his well-intended Koranic invocations, I asked the film-maker, it’s God and religion surely that are the trouble?

“Without a doubt. It was Voltaire, I think, who said: ‘People who believe in absurdities commit atrocities.’ My love of God is more the love of a creative spirit. We are surrounded by beauty and creativity. So that’s what God is to me and what I try to express to my children. It’s religions that are organs of power — they’re the problem.”

Can art, cinema or the media world help? Can anything? “All you have to do” — the bearlike man in the peach shirt grows suddenly animated — “it’s easy to defeat them, is shut CNN off. Shut NBC and Fox News off. That’s what they’re living on, the publicity. If you want to kill an evil plant, shut the sunlight off. Obviously Isis could be defeated militarily. But it’s hard to defeat them ultimately when they have such good press agents!”

He goes back, for conclusion, to the Koran’s “grace and mercy”. “How gracious are these people? How merciful? Surely they’re going to be judged badly by the very God they believe in?”

Bill Murray receives a lifetime achievement award from Francis Ford Coppola
Bill Murray receives a lifetime achievement award from Francis Ford Coppola © Reuters

You don’t just feel at the crossroads of the world in Marrakech, you feel at the interface of centuries and sensibilities. A group of us was whisked by plane to Ouarzazate. Its rocky Kasbah; its Atlas foothills; and, yes, its film studios. The desert mountains eyeball the vast paste-and-mortar fortress. This eye-stunner is the world’s largest standing set, built for Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, recycled today for Game of Thrones.

Back in Marrakech, state of the art audiovisual technology jazzes up the red carpet events — a kaleidoscope of screens and speakers wherever you stand or sit in or near the Palais des Congrès — while a masterclass conducted by Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) travels back 60 years to invoke the deathless grail of his cinephilia and the work that ignited and inspired his career.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo. What else? There are only that and Citizen Kane. If you love Hitchcock, the greatest film artist of all (say I and says the last world poll by Sight & Sound), you’ll be besotted with Marrakech. It’s a town mazed with mystery. It’s a Rubik’s Cube masquerading as a city. Whatever colours and shapes will it next turn? Yesterday I even found, thanks to a taxi driver’s tip-off, the restaurant where James Stewart and Doris Day dined, and met their adversaries, in Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo’s predecessor. Magic!

The man must have known too much. The too much is called Marrakech. It’s too much of everything. Its very largeness of spirit is a repudiation of the meanness and negations of modern Islam’s false messiahs and murderers misnamed martyrs.

Ends on Saturday, festivalmarrakech.info

Photograph: Reuters

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