The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Reel life in a Muslim nation

Morocco provides a good example of how cinema can be used as a civilising influence. It is no coincidence that only two years after Mohammed VI succeeded his father, Hassan II, as the King of Morocco in July, 1999, at the age of 36, the country’s first international film festival was held in Marrakech in 2001. That same year the king visited India and perhaps learnt something about Bollywood, which has a huge following among the 30 million people of Morocco.

This year, the 6th International Film Festival of Marrakech was held from December 1-9 “under the patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI”.

The king, who is trying to steer his country between orthodox and liberal Islam, appears to be more than a figurehead.

Nour-Eddine Sail, the senior governing figure at the Marrakech Film Festival, confirms: “He likes cinema and movies.”

“Moroccans love movies,” adds Sail, vice-president of the Marrakech International Film Festival Foundation which has the king’s younger brother, Prince Moulay Tachid, as its president. “Culturally, cinema has a role to play to make people more open-minded. It is a very good thing that in Morocco we have a young king, a young cinema and a lot of young people.”

The monarch seems a thoroughly good chap, modest, willing to relinquish his father’s absolute powers to create more of a constitutional monarchy, wise enough to respect that which is traditional in Morocco but also empower women to create a modern version of an Islamic society.

Having an international film festival in Marrakech means that glamorous western female stars will sometimes dress in a revealing way and that there will be explicit sex scenes in some movies. But the nightly star parade is watched by happy Moroccan crowds, which include local women and girls in traditional dress.

“Morocco is a liberal nation,” explains Sail. “There is no contradiction between Islam and liberalism.”

Morocco makes 15 full-length movies and over 100 shorts in a year and both the quality and number are going up.

Sail, who is also director-general of the Moroccan Cinema Centre, makes possibly the most perceptive remark I heard in Morocco: “Countries which do not produce even one movie in a year cannot be normal countries because every country needs its own fiction, its own way of telling its stories.”

Bruno’s baby

The choice of movies picked for Marrakech rests mainly with its artistic director, Bruno Barde, a proud Frenchman who says he never tires of watching the film that defined the best cinema for him — Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar.

“I believe the signature of the festival is that of the man who selects the movies,” says Barde.

If India were to make more films of the kind Ray did, they would get into competition. But if he puts traditional Bollywood movies into competition they would stick out like “UFOs (unidentified flying objects) because their structures are so different,” he argues.

Does that mean that Bollywood films have to be very different if they are to be chosen for competition at festivals such as Marrakech'

“Why change' No,” declares Bruno. “This is your diversity, your riches. You don’t cancel one kind of film for the other.”

During the festival, there are three theatres in Marrakech which specialise in Bollywood hits — this year the 19 screened included Don, Rang De Basanti and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.

Bruno, who has picked movies for various film festivals for the past 12 years and who learnt from working with Francois Cuppola, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, travels the world and watches more than 1,000 films a year.

“I know cinema, that’s my only strength,” he asserts. “Some people make music, others make noise. Some people make cinema, others a hotch potch of images.”

He explains the extraordinary appeal of Indian movies: “In a way, Indian cinema has replaced Egyptian cinema in the hearts of the Moroccan people.”

Morocco’s Moor

Just before Omkara was shown “out of competition” in Marrakech, the film’s director, Vishal Bharadwaj, reminded an audience of 1,500 that his was an Indian retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.

He also recalled that Orson Welles’s 1952 version of Othello was shot in Morocco — the film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes that year.

What Bharadwaj forgot to mention was that Shakespeare’s Othello, the “Moor of Venice”, was inspired by a tale about a North African Muslim warrior and ambassador who had come from the land now known as Morocco.

This was revealed to me by movie buff Abdelkader Jamoussi, press officer at the Moroccan embassy in London, who seems a very special diplomat himself — he has just finished writing an Arabic translation of the Mahabharata.

Fame game

Unlike the Bollywood brats who trade on their parents’ name, American actor Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez, 44, has “chosen to retain the family name, hoping to avoid riding his father’s coat-tails”.

“Martin Sheen” is the stage name of 66-year-old Ramon Gerard Antonio Estevez, who was born in Ohio, the son of Francisco Estevez, a Spaniard who came to the US by way of Cuba, and Mary Ann Phelan, an Irish immigrant with IRA sympathies.

For me possibly the best film at Marrakech was Bobby, based on the assassination in 1968 of Robert Kennedy. It is written and directed by Estevez, who has a cameo role for his dad.

When we discussed possible films on political assassinations in India, it was Sheen who reminded me he had acted in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi way back in 1982. And though his was a small part, playing an American reporter, Vince Walker of the New York Times, what a superb performance that had been.

Although I have been taught to avoid putting personal comment into news reports, I have always marvelled at the scene where Walker, after witnessing the British order to lathi charge Gandhi’s 1930 peaceful salt march in Dandi, dictates copy to his paper saying that “whatever moral ascendance the west held was lost today”.

Party poopers

It really was Hamlet without the prince when Ajay Devgan and Kajol failed to turn up to their own “homage”, especially since their eager fans had waited days for their idols and when the festival authorities had gone out of their way to promote Bollywood and the two Indian stars. In vain Moroccan girls practised their salaams and Hindi learnt from Bollywood.

In the absence of the Devgans, there was no choice for the Moroccan cinema lovers but to make do with minor stars from elsewhere. A fellow called Roman Polanski, who happened to be the jury chairman, found time to give a lengthy press conference, as did an American woman called Susan Sarandon, who also merited a homage.

For the homage to Italian cinema, there was a line-up of 24.

Tittle tattle

The mascara packet for non-white complexions that the Atlas Blue airline sells on flights between London Gatwick and Marrakech has the familiar face of a ubiquitous L’Oreal girl. No marks for guessing the identity of the person about whom an American journalist wrote after the 2004 Marrakech International Film Festival: “The closing film was Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, introduced by the strikingly beautiful Indian actress Aishwarya Rai.”

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