Through the Mamounia Hotel, past the eternally-dimmed French colonial bar and a little way down the bright garden path, there is a large riad decorated in blue and white Andalusi tiles. It is serene and inviting, and were it not the war room for the Marrakech Film Festival’s publicity team, it’s an ideal spot for one to spend time alone with their thoughts.
When I arrive, Melita Toscan du Plantier is being interviewed by a Parisian reporter. The festival chief motions me to sit and wait near her young assistants, who tap away on their Macbooks attending to the relentless demands of journalists asking to meet the line-up of stars—Tilda Swinton, Jim Jarmusch, Paolo Sorrentino, Tahar Rahim, Jeremy Irons, James Gray, Marion Cotillard, Vanessa Kirby, Isabelle Huppert—and as one girl sighs: “I’m doing my best, but it’s non-stop.”
For Melita, days like these are a part of her duty to continue growing the festival’s reputation. She is responsible for making Marrakech the Arab World’s largest film event; featuring a jury that could compete with Venice, and a platform that the North African, Gulf, and Levantine filmmakers consider their biggest local stage. But 2022 (or the 19th edition) is the first event since the start of the pandemic, marking a two year hiatus. The pressure is on to come back with a bang, but it’s nothing she isn’t already accustomed to. As Melita finally joins me, she admits there were also struggles in the beginning—launching it in 2001 with her late husband Daniel Toscan du Plantier under the patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI: “Our first festival was two weeks after 9/11 and so most of our guests cancelled. It became political for me and I fought for its survival, which is proven today, because the festival is now thriving after twenty-two years.”
This uncertainty of this year’s edition reminded her of those early days, she tells me: “The stars didn’t want to commit too early. There was a fear that something—war perhaps—would stop us this time.” But hobbling around the Palais des Congrès that week, with its marble columns and cosy screening-rooms, there was an atmosphere of optimism shared between the international visitors and the locals. I saw Ruben Ostlund and Vanessa Kirby wandering through the hotel without security. Ranveer Singh was filmed embracing his screaming fans (Bollywood is big in Morocco) and it appears that the stars are actually letting their hair down. “We don’t have a big commercial outlook like the big festivals,” she points out. “This is a gathering of film-lovers, and we don’t pay for them to be there like some other festivals, who have offered friends of mine a lot of money to appear there. Martin Scorsese, who is our godfather figure, told me at the beginning that artists shouldn’t be paid to go to a festival.”
Melita has been coming to Marrakech every year since the festival started, and she is well accustomed to its charms. Although she is also producing (next with Martin Scorsese with Catherine Deneuve and Andrea Riseborough; as well as an upcoming Fanny Ardant picture) she is aware that Marrakech is part of her personal legacy, and it has become her happy place. “I feel safe here,” she tells me. “My kids partly grew up in Morocco and whenever I return home I bring a small bottle of orange blossom to give the impression that I am still in a Moroccan garden.” But there’s no hiding from the fact that this is a very traditional society, and so I ask her whether she has faced instances of sexism. It’s a question she dismisses: “People respect what I do and the success of the festival speaks for itself,” she replies, with cool diplomacy. “I have a big temper. But I think you need to have a strong personality to run a festival like this,” Melita insists, “so, it’s important to work with people you trust, and people that you love, because I am very demanding—even though it can be hard for my team.”
Her tone switches between moments of harsh fact and sentimentality. Melita is direct about the work, but her voice becomes softer—sometimes erring on romantic—when mentioning the people of Morocco, of whom she has gotten to know tremendously over the past twenty-two-years. Under her stewardship, the festival does its best to integrate them into the occasion, hosting a series of workshops for aspiring African filmmakers, as well as inviting Moroccan schoolchildren to experience theatres for the first time in their lives. For Melita, it is their festival.
“Even with the Royal dinner, the meetings, and the red carpets…I mostly look forward to the outdoor screenings at Djemaa El-Fna,” she explains. “Seeing the smiles on peoples’ faces reminds me why I do this.” Each night, around eight in the evening, the famously chaotic square becomes a gathering place for families and friends to marvel at a large projection of blockbusters like Ad Astra or The Minions 2. It is a thrilling occasion, with a carnival-atmosphere that halts to complete silence after opening credits, and in between there are spots of laughter and gasps of suspense. For those ten days, everyone in Marrakech is talking about films. “We are open to the public and they are present at all of the screenings. What is most interesting is the evolution of the public since we started. Most of them were not used to art-house films, let alone from Russia, Asia, South America and the rest of the world, and we couldn’t fill the salons,” she admits. “That’s different now. We are bringing them movies that wouldn’t usually see a release here. A lot of people are unable to travel, but this week, they have the opportunity to escape to other parts of the world and experience the way different people live.”
The assistant cuts the interview off, and reminds Melita that there’s someone else now waiting. “You need to speak to me again later in the festival. By then, you’ll understand what it is really about. I think it will surprise you,” Melita tells me as we part ways. With that, I leave the riad and return to the bustle of the Palais des Congrès, where the first Moroccan film I will see here, The Blue Kaftan, is playing. It is a love story between two men.
Everything has been carefully planned for our convenience. On the Boulevard Mohamed VI, there is a hotel just for press, a hotel for the filmmakers and their crews, and the Palais des Congrès where we gather for the screenings or discussions with the likes of Jeremy Irons and Jim Jarmusch. A fleet of BMWs takes us freely between the three, as well as the Mamounia, where the big interviews are organised around the Oriental gardens.
We are outside of the old city walls—the new Marrakech; a world of shopping centres with food courts, glitzy cafes and nightclubs. It is a sharp contrast to the medina, with its tarpaulin awnings and the smell of leather dye and ras el hanout. During the festival, I am told that there is a relaxing of the rules to accommodate visitors, but everyone has contradicting opinions: drinking alcohol might be illegal. Being at a bar past a certain time could be prohibited. Eloping with members of the opposite sex is against the rules…well, that depends—as with pretty much every basic sin—on whether or not you’re Moroccan.
I spent most of my time with the foreign press or with some of the filmmakers and actors in competition. Turkish director Selcen Ergun—who made the thrilling Snow and the Bear—and I met daily to explore the Casbah together. She was still reeling from a national scandal at the Bosphorus Film Festival just weeks before, where her film had won the Jury Prize. Having voiced her support for a politically jailed medical professor in the acceptance speech, a doctored clip went viral that caused outrage among Turkey’s far-right. But she only noticed the absurdity of the situation. “I could make a film out of it,” she laughed one evening. “It’s like a black comedy. This guy who heckled me in the crowd, a television extra, was actually photographed shaking hands with the Turkish minister of defence. He’s now a national hero.” Days later, the entire festival jury quit. Selcen’s Twitter was full of death threats.
It’s proof of how fragile the arts are in some parts of the world, but not in Marrakech—thanks to the efforts of Melita and her artistic director Rémi Bonhomme. Almost every film in competition had a political message: from Tunisia’s Ashkal to Sweden’s Savage, Canada’s Riceboy Sleeps (the critics favourite) and The Taste of Apples is Red; powerful, often controversial, stories were shown to mixed audiences. It is one of the best-curated programmes of its size, thanks to the heavily-sought-after Bonhomme’s experience at the Cannes Film Festival. Special screenings also revealed highlights from earlier festivals—Alice Diop’s mysterious Saint Omer and Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter were followed by live appearances. One of the most touching moments of each Q&A was how grateful the local spectators were that Tilda Swinton or Hogg came to Morocco; which was both sweet and rather sad, and reminded me of Melita’s aspirations to make Moroccans feel as though they had a stronger presence on the world’s cinematic stage.
But the moment that really changed my preconceptions was at the screening for Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica, which debuted at Venice. The story follows a trans woman who returns home to take care of her dying mother, and as stirring as it is, I was more curious about the audience’s reaction to the LGBT themes; particularly during one very graphic sex scene. By the time Pallaoro appeared on stage, few people had left, and the film’s biggest admirers were different groups of young women in hijabs who thanked him profusely for making such a “beautiful film about family.”
“I’m a lot less stressed at this point,” Melita explains to me, as we settle into another conversation at the Mamounia. She is wearing a bougainvillaea-toned Gucci blazer that compliments her darting blue eyes. “At the start, you’re always panicking about cancellations or schedules. That’s the biggest fear: when the stars cancel at the last minute. So I’m tired—very tired—but also happy, because I can now feel the joy from our guests and the public.”
The festival was a success. The 19th edition welcomed a record number of guests, filled out theatres with both the public and foreigners, and all that’s left is the closing ceremony, a final tribute to Tilda Swinton, and then the small matter of an after-party (which coincidentally falls on Melita’s birthday). She talks about the days that follow the festival’s closing. “It can feel like a big hole. After weeks of two-hundred emails a day, and when all the phone calls stop, you feel a little bit down. When I get home I spend days sleeping,” she laughs. “I don’t sleep much here.” I ask whether she indulges in the many parties and galas throughout the week. Judging from her bemused expression, it seems like a mad prospect to Melita, who—although she glamorously treads the red carpet—makes her appearances out of that same sense of duty. “I only had fun once, Saturday night after the royal dinner. But I can’t say running a festival is fun, it’s my duty to be well-dressed and walk on the red carpet,” she tells me. “It’s only in the weeks after that I can step back and think, ‘Wow, that was an amazing edition’ but when I’m in the thick of it, all I’m doing is fixing things. It’s like when I produce films. I’ll have to watch it eight or ten times to work on edits with the director. When it becomes so technical, it’s hard to appreciate it like everyone else does,” she notes.
Being a festival chief for twenty-two-years can take its toll, and she accepts there probably isn’t another twenty in her future. But it’s hard to imagine the Marrakech Film Festival without Melita Toscan du Plantier—and she admits to me that it will be just as hard for her to let it go. “It’s kind of my baby. I talk about the festival every day of my life. But more than that, this is personal because I built the festival from the ground with my husband, who is no longer with us,” she tells me—which sheds some light on her emotional motivations. “I’m just grateful that His Majesty King Mohammed VI and HRH Prince Moulay Rachid asked me to continue for so long.”
Next year, the festival will be even bigger, Melita explains. It’s the 20th edition, and the 20th anniversary of her beloved husband’s death, so she feels a responsibility to make this milestone particularly special. “My mind is already on the next edition. I will be visiting Los Angeles a few times before then to speak to certain people and make sure that the casting of stars is the biggest it has ever been,” she adds. It certainly won’t be an event to miss; considering the scale of her ambitions, her influence, and her well-intentioned mission to make Marrakech one of cinema’s emerging capitals. Melita has committed so much of her life to Morocco, and it is one of the festivals I look forward to returning to. It is her unspoken contribution to the arts—and the teenagers who scream Ranveer Singh’s name, cheer at their own legend Farida Belyazid on the red carpet, or who ask to have their photograph with Selcen Ergun at the cafe near the Palais des Congrès, do so because of her and her team’s tireless work. When November arrives, it is no coincidence that some of the most glamorous artists in cinema have their plane tickets booked for Marrakech. Because as Tilda Swinton said of Melita in her speech at the festival’s closing ceremony: “She calls us all like a siren…and we come to her from all corners.”
Check out our favourite films from the 19th Marrakech Film Festival here!