Marrakech International Film Festival 2012: Round-Up

Marrakech International Film Festival 2012: Round-Up film still

Indian horror-porn, Berlin-set whimsy and a buffet to send you straight to traction. Ashley Clark reports from Marrakech.

The Marrakech International Film Festival, which took place in the spacious Moroccan city between 30 November and 8 December 2012, was a captivating mixture of high glamour, refreshingly diverse programming, and genuinely populist fervour. The festival, now in its twelfth year, is funded largely by King Muhammed VI, and is as opulent, well-organised and tourist-friendly as one might expect from an event with its roots in royalty.

From the astonishing first sight of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains looming in the background, to the ornate, sumptuously appointed selection of cinemas, it was all too easy to fall in love with the place. Lowly journalists were treated like VIPs by friendly staff, and whisked around the city from junket to screening in shuttle vans and secret-service style black cabs with custom festival number plates.

Meanwhile, the opening night party took place a good 40 minutes out of town at the Taj Palace hotel, a venue so wholly lavish that I half-expected Bryan Ferry to appear at any moment, crooning 'Avalon' atop a bed of peacock feathers. Alas, I had to make do with a pair of (vaguely terrifying) stilt-walking twins, a coterie of enthusiastic belly dancers, and the most ostentatious buffet since Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe.

But I was, of course, really there for the cinema. And there was plenty to choose from. The big theme this year was the tribute to Hindi cinema. Indian cinema enjoys a passionate following in Morocco, and the red carpet crowds were out in force to welcome an all-star delegation of guests including the great Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, director Karan Johar, and actress Tabu, among others. Shahrukh Khan, who has a strong claim to being the world’s most popular actor, concluded the onstage tribute with an emotional testament to the legendary Bollywood director Yash Chopra, who passed away in October.

Intriguingly, the programme of Hindi cinema focused almost entirely on recent work (only one film predated 2010), and though there was room for escapist, song 'n' dance fare (showcased in vastly populated open-air screenings at the Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech’s medina quarter), there was also room for some daring, iconoclastic stuff too.

Highlights included the lovingly detailed and gloriously sleazy Miss Lovely, a portrait of two shifty brothers working in the '80s Indian horror/porn scene that sat somewhere between Tony Manero, Boogie Nights and Berberian Sound Studio; and the two-part, five-hour plus crime saga Gangs Of Wasseypur, an engrossing, absurdly violent epic which impressively maintained its own identity while quoting extensively from Western genre pics.

As well as the megawatt Indian delegation, the festival also attracted a host of renowned international filmmaking talent for a mixture of tributes and appearances (The still-fledgling festival relies more on star power for attention than the strength of its programme). There were tributes and partial retrospectives dedicated to Isabelle Huppert, Jonathan Demme, Zhang Yimou, and Moroccan producer Karim Abouobayd; and masterclasses from Darren Aronofksy (who sadly wouldn’t reveal anything about his upcoming Biblical epic Noah) and Filipino wizard Brillante Mendoza.

Meanwhile, John Boorman (looking alarmingly like Lloyd Bridges these days), headed a competition judging panel which featured the likes of James Gray, Gemma Arterton and Lambert Wilson. In a nice touch, the entire judging panel was warmly welcomed into each screening at the Palais des Congres cinema, giving the lie to any fusty visions of stressed judges crammed into a sweaty room, huddled around a DVD screener.

It’s fair to say that the quality of films on show at the Marrakech Film Festival, year on year, are not necessarily the strongest, especially when compared to chronological cousins Toronto, Venice and London. However, its lack of a genuinely knockout programme is cleverly addressed and subverted by the manner in which the 'In Competition' selection prioritises upcoming (often first time) filmmakers. This edition was no exception.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that, because my time in Marrakech was limited, I was unable to catch the winner of the Golden Star for best film, The Attack; a drama centred on the aftermath of a suicide bombing and its impact on an Arab surgeon living in Israel. The Jury Prize was shared between Tobias Lindholm’s tense A Hijacking and my personal favourite competition film, Vahid Vakilifar’s Taboor.

A genuinely bizarre existential drama from Iran, Taboor tracked the movements across one day of a taciturn pest controller who clad in an aluminium jumpsuit used to protect himself from the electromagnetic fields that raise his body temperature (I know, right?). Reminiscent of Holy Motors in its portrait of an eccentric and ultimately exhausted figure struggling through time, it was inscrutable, no-doubt allegorical stuff whose exact meaning escaped me.

But, with its measured formal restraint, it gave me plenty of time to think. Instinctively engaging in some Peter Greenaway-esque formal gameplay, I counted 81 separate shots in total; a figure to send cut-happy Oliver Stone into paroxysms of unrest.

Another film to be set in a 24-hour time period was Jan Olaf Gerster’s Oh Boy!, a lithe, deadpan comedy starring Mackenzie Crook-a-like Tom Schilling as Niko, a feckless college dropout wandering the streets of Berlin. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and replete with a jazzy score, Oh Boy! filtered a raft of deadpan/dead cool influences (Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, Scorsese’s After Hours) through a distinctly Berlin-esque sensibility, resulting in a nicely ironic, digestible brew that was partially undone by a faint tang of misogyny.

My favourite character was an intrusive neighbour of Niko’s who played like a disturbing cross between Fargo’s tragic dinner companion-cum-arch fabricator Mike Yanagita, and Barton Fink’s overfriendly hotel resident Charlie Meadows.

The worst film I saw by some distance was Rong-ji Chang’s Touch Of The Light, a nauseatingly saccharine partial biopic of blind Taiwanese piano prodigy Yu Hsiang, with a focus on his burgeoning relationship with a miserable (but very beautiful) coffee-shop worker who wants to be a ballet dancer.

Executive produced by Wong Kar-wai (who’d surely never let himself lapse into such filmic candyfloss), it was well-meaning stuff, but had all the punch of a Nintendo DS commercial, and worse still, came across as unintentionally crass in explicitly comparing Hsiang’s genuine disability with his girlfriend’s surliness. I later discovered that Hsiang was playing himself, and though I’ll probably go to hell for saying this, there’s a reason why there are such things as actors.

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