In the shadow of a devastating earthquake and an all-pervasive war, the 20th Marrakech International Film Festival featured some of the best cinema from Africa and the Middle East. By Andy Hazel.

Marrakech International Film Festival

A young man stands in the middle of an overcrowded boat.
Seydou Sarr in a scene from Matteo Garrone’s Me Captain.
Credit: Greta De Lazzaris

In early September, Morocco experienced a devastating 6.8-magnitude earthquake. Nearly 3000 people died, more than 50,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and parts of Marrakech’s medina – the engine room of the country’s vital tourism industry – were left in ruins.

This year’s Marrakech International Film Festival is full of people creating appealing images of a sunny, ochre-walled, palm tree-fringed desert oasis. It’s a view the monarchy and government are working hard to cultivate. Weeks after the earthquake, as authorities defended their refusal of international aid and residents of decimated towns protested about the lack of assistance, representatives from the International Monetary Fund and banking executives met in Marrakech and declared Morocco open for business – a move that prompted further protests.

Now the earthquake has been overshadowed by Gaza. “The conflict”, as it is referred to, is front and centre in the thoughts of not only Moroccans – who have gathered in huge pro-Palestinian marches and boycotted Israeli-aligned businesses – but also the festival programmers. From Tewfik Saleh’s 1972 drama The Dupes – one of the first films to address the dispossession of Palestine – to Palestinian director Dima Hamdan’s thriller Amnesia – a work in progress presented as part of the talent incubator program, Atlas Workshops – it is hard to avoid.

Another issue on the minds of many filmmakers showcased both in and out of competition is migration from northern and central Africa. Already this year a record 145,000 people have attempted the journey to Italy. At the festival, tensions between lives south or east of the Mediterranean and in Europe are explored as personal documentary (Lina Soualem’s Bye Bye Tiberias), romance (Adriano Valerio’s Casablanca), animated fairytale (Marya Zarif and André Kadi’s Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo), sports comedy (Omar Hilal’s Voy! Voy! Voy!), French political drama (Ladj Ly’s Les Indésirables), Polish political drama (Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border) and widescreen epic (Matteo Garrone’s Me Captain).

Garrone’s film follows Seydou and Moussa, played by Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, two Senegalese freestyle rappers with dreams of “white people asking for our autographs”. The friends leave their peaceful but unexciting life to make the journey to Italy. Me Captain has already played in European parliament and Italian high schools, pushed the conversation of Italy’s immigration policies and found box office and critical success. Despite his extensive collaboration with migrants in its writing and execution, Garrone’s film has been criticised for the discord between its lavish production values and the life-threatening brutality of the boys’ mission.

“We are used to seeing boats arriving,” says Garrone. “But what is the idea that makes someone want to leave a country that’s not at war, or that is not desperate? They go for a dream. When people migrated from Italy to the States a hundred years ago, they went for work. They didn’t know what they were going to see. Today, in Senegal, there is a window into our country because of social media, and we show Italian lives full of light. We make a promise to them. When they arrive, they find the background they couldn’t see. I saw it when the actors, Seydou and Moustapha, arrived in Europe. Every day they are on TikTok, creating images of a beautiful place, creating the dream. It is contagious.”

Outside acclaim for the performances, Garrone’s film met with a mixed response. Alexander Payne’s tightly written 1970s-style comedy The Holdovers and Bertrand Bonello’s La Bête, which adapted Henry James’s novella The Beast in the Jungle into an approximation of a Black Mirror episode directed by David Lynch, dominated conversations at the festival.

Earthquake damage to the medina is covered by scaffolding and facades as the ceaseless noise of construction soundtracks the city. The festival – with its red carpets, world premieres and glamour – emerges into this still-unfolding chaos. Hours before he was due to arrive, the festival’s biggest name, Martin Scorsese, withdrew, citing exhaustion from promoting his film Killers of the Flower Moon.

Those who did make the trip – actors Willem Dafoe, Viggo Mortensen, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Matt Dillon, Alexander Skarsgård and Jessica Chastain – all drew cheering crowds to the grand cinema complex Palais des Congrès. Australia was represented by director Ivan Sen with his warmly received outback noir Limbo, and its star Simon Baker. “The conflict”, as journalists at the festival are regularly reminded by nervous publicists, is strictly off limits during interviews with the guests.

“In the weeks leading up to the festival, we were not sure that we would even be able to be here. The world we share is shattered and devoured,” said Chastain, in her speech at the opening ceremony. “Throughout history, art has been used as an accessible tool for communication, raising awareness about social issues and effecting positive change.”

This year’s festival eschewed glitzy parties. Public screenings in the city’s famous Jemaa el-Fna square – filled with food stalls, roving hawkers, motorbikes and itinerant musicians – were also cancelled. Organisers explained these moves as “a decision to concentrate on the work”, hastening to remind journalists the festival was open to the public. Last year, I watched Dune in Jemaa el-Fna while being assailed by a man with a monkey on a chain and another trying to drape a docile snake around my shoulders while asking for “paper money”. This year, the indoor screenings are a mix of local cinephiles, film students and the curious, some of whom take calls and photos and whose phones sporadically trill with the sound of the call to prayer.

It’s a challenge to focus on a film such as Michel Franco’s sensitively drawn Memory, in which Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard portray a couple drawn together despite a childhood trauma one cannot forget and the other’s early-onset dementia. Others, such as Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies – an inventive exploration of family, storytelling and Moroccan culture – become a collective conversation with a vocal audience. El Moudir’s film won the Sydney Film Festival’s top award and repeated the feat here, taking the Etoile d’Or.

Sharing the Jury Prize with Kamal Lazraq’s Hounds was another that reckons with recent history and family connections, the Palestinian documentary Bye Bye Tiberias. Director Lina Soualem’s mother is actor Hiam Abbass, best known for playing Marcia Roy in the television series Succession. Soualem’s camera follows and interrogates Abbass as she returns to the town she fled to pursue her dreams, leaving behind her mother, grandmother and seven sisters. Despite heartbreak, exile and dispossession, the connection between the women is powerful.

Current events give Soualem’s film a sense of urgency. “It’s not something new,” she tells me. “The grandparents of Palestinians today were Palestinian refugees. It is vital for me to keep transmitting this silent story of a culture that has been erased. These people are not present in our official history.

“When Lina made this movie and we decided to come to this festival, it was long before this whole thing happened,” adds Abbass. “When you see this movie now, you almost have an answer to what’s happening.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Between worlds".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription