Marrakech Director on Navigating MENA Region’s Festival Season

Marrakech Director on Navigating MENA Region’s Festival Season

Melita Toscan du Plantier has been the driving force behind the Marrakech Film Festival ever since her late husband, revered French producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, wrote to Morocco’s king two decades ago expressing “his ambition for a big international festival in Morocco,” as she recounts.

The festival’s 20th edition is currently underway in the ancient Moroccan city, despite the Israel-Hamas conflict that has caused cancellations of several other fests in the region as well as the earthquake that hit the country in September. Significantly, a slew of stars have turned up to support the event such as Tilda Swinton, Jessica Chastain (who is presiding over the main jury) and Isabelle Huppert (pictured with Toscan du Plantier on the right, while fest VP Faïçal Laraïchi is on the left).

Variety spoke to Melita Toscan du Plantier about navigating this year’s many challenges, including the increasingly crowded end-of-year Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region festival season.

You are the key figure behind this festival since its inception 20 years ago. How has it evolved and how difficult has it been to forge ahead with this year’s edition?

Through the years, it has been a big journey and I also think it took us a few years to find the right positioning. Since the Atlas Workshops, we’ve found even more of an identity by nurturing all these young filmmakers from Africa and the Middle East. That’s also one of the biggest reasons we didn’t want to cancel the festival this year, because what would they do?

What happened when the earthquake struck in September?

I spoke to the board and they said: “No, no, Morocco needs a festival. It’s important. These people have suffered with the earthquake. Why should they have to suffer again due to us canceling the festival?” Because they need the festival to champion Moroccan cinema and local filmmakers, and we need to show the world that Morocco is fine and people can come back, even for tourism. So that was important, because they need us. Morocco needs tourism. So for all these reasons, we had to fight. And then of course, with what’s happening now in the Middle East [the Israel-Hamas war], it’s not been very easy. But I’m glad we did because it has been a few days now and to see all these people, from all these different nationalities and religions, talking about cinema and love and being united is amazing. Yesterday, [I saw] my very dear friend Rebecca Zlotowski (“Other People’s Children”), and when she left she sent me this amazing message. She said: “Melita, thank you so much. In this horrible period where the world is trying to divide everyone, you’ve succeeded in reuniting us around cinema and love.”

To me, Marrakech stands out because it encompasses all of Africa and the Arab world. That’s what makes it unique aside from the high profile talents coming from the western world.

Yes, you nailed it. But another difference with some of the other festivals that’s important is we have a real public. Our festival is free for the public. They can go to all the screenings and masterclasses and it’s free. Also, we don’t pay for people to come. We never pay people to come unlike Red Sea Festival which splashes huge amounts. We don’t even pay for their hairdresser. So this is also important. Of course it helps to stay at the Mamounia [luxury hotel] for the guests. But if the festival had no heart; if there was no quality to the films, do you think that Martin Scorsese would come again and again? [He’s been five times, but had to miss this year’s fest for personal reasons]. He knows Morocco. He doesn’t need us to come to Marrakech or Morocco. He’s got enough money to come here whenever he wants. Francis Coppola has come three or four times. People are coming back again because they love the festival.

MENA region fests are all piled up in this part of the year due to climate reasons. And this year, the dates for Marrakech (Nov. 24-Dec. 2) and Red Sea (Nov. 30-Dec. 9) dovetail. Too close for comfort?

I mean [artistic director] Rémi Bonhomme and the programming team are amazing and they are working hard because we have so much competition now. And we have to also survive against [this] adversity too, because Red Sea has much more money than us and are giving it to nearly all Arab films. And then they ask that their films are shown as a premiere at their festival. And that’s very unfair. So we are fighting to exist and to survive against adversity. As for the dates, they stole our dates, because our dates have always been at beginning of December for many years. But they didn’t ask us if it was bothering us to be on the same date. So I think everybody can coexist. But the way they do things is really not fair.

Moroccan cinema seems to be making great strides, especially in terms of generating very bold, cutting-edge films. As someone who has the pulse of this situation, what’s your take?

I’ve seen Moroccan cinema grow so much. The first year [of the festival], the country’s output was four films and this year it’s almost 30. And this is an amazing year for Moroccan cinema. To see Asmae El Moudir’s “The Mother of All Lies” [Morocco’s international Oscar candidate] win so many prizes already. It’s such a brilliant hybrid between feature film and documentary. Shortly after Cannes [where it won the Un Certain Regard prize for best director], I was in Australia where Asmae won the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival and got a standing ovation. And she came to me and said: “I’ve been dreaming about attending Marrakech from when I was a child, watching you during the ceremony on TV and my dream since I was a little girl is to have a film in this festival.” She’s so amazed to be in competition here, even though she was in Cannes. And she even told Saudi Arabia [the Red Sea fest] – who put a little bit of money in her film and tried to have the premiere for the region – she said, “No, I’m Moroccan. I’ve been able to make this movie because I got prizes twice from the Atlas Workshops, first for development and then post-production.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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