In Apocalypse Now, as Willard and his crew make their way up the Nung River, the captain learns that Kurtz, his main target, previously staged a successful, but unofficial, operation called Archangel. Instead of being nailed “to the floorboards” for insubordination, Kurtz was promoted to full colonel “after the press got hold of it.” To these events, Willard concludes: “The bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.” I’ve reached a similar conclusion about the awards ceremony for the 15th Marrakech International Film Festival, which ended on December 12, where Francis Ford Coppola served as jury president for the festival’s main competition. In short, when it came time to award the jury prize, Coppola announced a “split decision”: The prize was going to “cinema itself” and, thus, every film in competition.
Rather, almost every film. The ceremony began on a bizarre note when Coppola took the podium to award the Golden Star—the festival’s top prize—to Very Big Shot, Lebanese director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya’s violent satire about a drug runner turned film producer. The award, typically announced last, preceded a slate of other recognitions, including best director, best actor, and best actress. Subsequently, Coppola gave a concluding speech, beginning with an anecdote about his granddaughter, who once professed her love of “all cinema,” to which Coppola was initially suspicious.
However, the director said he soon “realized any true cinema originating from pure motives is beautiful. It’s so hard to make a film, doing it requires labor for years under the most difficult circumstances and against hopeless odds.” It’s a sentiment that, apparently, caused the director and his jury to rethink the entire structure of film festivals by effectively handing out participation prizes. Instead of completing the mission as ordered, Coppola went full Kurtz.
Unlike Kurtz, however, the success of Coppola’s decree has yet to be determined and based on reactions of the people inside the Palais des Congrès and word of mouth at the post-awards party, the response has ranged from confusion to disagreement to outright offense. As one colleague said, “He wouldn’t have pulled this shit in Cannes.”
That Coppola decided to change the rules of the game in Marrakech and not at a prominent European festival encapsulates the attitudes of the festival’s highest profile American guests, who used the Moroccan stage to speak out against recent tragedies in Paris and San Bernadino, as Bill Murray did during the opening ceremony, or even environmental progress, as Coppola did regarding the COP21 climate agreement, which was signed in Paris the very night of the festival’s closing ceremony. In fact, Coppola even reasoned the unprecedented jury-prize decision in relation to the treaty, saying, “These are times when we human beings can accomplish any goal, however difficult, by working together.”
Coppola’s utopian rhetoric, though seemingly genuine in its audible and visible emotion, belies the ethnocentricity of the jury’s gesture, shifting conversation away from the films, Marrakech, and matters of evaluation to an arbitrary “landmark decision,” as Variety called it. All week, reporters and guests asked if cinema had the capacity to change the world, to which Coppola and the jury said, indeed, they believed it did, but that it was going to take more than one film to start the conversation or bridge any number of gaps between nations.
It appears Coppola and his fellow jurors allowed these questions to cloud their judgments, leading to a wholly reactionary and regressive decree that failed to see beyond the confines of the festival’s walls. As 14 directors took the stage to receive their jury prizes, nearly all had a visible look of confusion and, even, disappointment. Jonás Cuarón, receiving the prize for his film Desierto, looked especially dismayed. Here stood a group of more than half a dozen filmmakers—all adults, all ready to win or lose based on the competition’s terms—who were suddenly told all bets were off. In one ill-conceived decree, Coppola transformed himself from cinema’s godfather into cinema’s helicopter parent. The horror, indeed.
The Marrakech International Film Festival ran from December 4—12.