Under the high patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI—to say nothing of the friendly participation of nearly three dozen multinational corporate sponsors—your correspondent was treated to just over a week in Marrakech, for the city’s 16th Marrakesh International Film Festival (FIFM). On the flight from New York, a United Nations employee told me the country’s vertiginous economics weren’t so different from those of the United States, “but the difference is that in Marrakech, you will actually see it.” He wasn’t wrong: The floors of the palatial hotel-resort-spa-compound housing the American critics’ contingent were walked day and night by employees with spray bottles and paper towels, spot-cleaning every last inch of marble and glass for maximum lustre. Cab drivers in permanent turnaround outside the main quadrangle of hotels decried the festival compound for clogging traffic on the palm tree-laden main drag of El Yarmouk Boulevard, while children in the street ambushed American publicists with rose petals after the sun went down—then castigated them for refusing to pay for the privilege.
FIFM honorees—which this year included Paul Verhoeven, veteran Moroccan comic actor Abderrahim “Abderrouf” Tounsi, and Russian cinema at large—were fêted at late-night open bars with free-for-all gourmet food faucets. At one such event, a beauty queen saw fit to complain to me that there wasn’t a single Moroccan film in the festival competition. Beyond FIFM’s state-subsidized glitz and glamor, the festival is unlike any other: the screening committee is shrouded in mystery; only 14 titles jockey for jury prizes (a majority of them having world-premiered earlier in the year); all screenings are free to the registered public; there are no shorts programs or documentary sidebars; and competition directors walk the red carpet merely to receive standing ovations—instead of, for instance, the customary maddening and/or meandering Q&A sessions.
Having missed the kickoff tribute to the late Abbas Kiarostami, I arrived on the day of a far different homage: to Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, whose gnashing 1990s classics Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tokyo Fist would screen for Marrakshi ticketholders later in the week, alongside his 2014 adaptation of Fires on the Plain. Following an introduction from Dutch-French filmmaker Jan Koenen—whose documentary work, in one announcer’s words, “revolutionized the way we look at vaping”—and an appropriately bludgeoning clip show, Tsukamoto accepted his award on a stage gussied up to look like a cinema-themed Situation Room, with Marrakech’s 12th-century-old Koutoubia Mosque standing in for Wolf Blitzer’s Capitol Building.
Tsukamoto delivered a soft-spoken, elegant rumination on the cyclical nature of human folly and the inevitable catastrophe of war, and capped with an abrupt just-the-facts-ma’am announcement: “One last thing. I played an important part in Martin Scorsese’s last movie, Silence. It is a terrific movie. If you have a chance, I vividly recommend that you go see it.” Curiously, the tribute presaged a screening of a film completely unrelated to Tsukamoto: Flemish director Bavo Defurne’s Souvenir, a Pink Martini-scored trifle starring Isabelle Huppert as a factory worker with a long-buried past singing torch-burners for Eurovision. (The film was introduced by Defurne, who described working with Huppert as “an optimist trying to convince a pessimist that hope exists.”) Like Che Guevara wrote about Stromboli, “the only word for the film is ’bad’”; nevertheless, for all the willing extremity of the festival’s programming, imagining this particular audience crossing this tapis rouge in their best tuxedos and sequins to watch Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet boggles the mind.
The next morning, in the Berber-deco gardens of the Hotel la Mamounia, where Hitchcock shot The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1933, I tried to pry Tsukamoto for further tidbits on Silence. He hedged thusly: “Scorsese only casts actors for whom he has total respect and confidence. He listens to all their suggestions and wisely assimilates them in his direction. I always wondered what made his movies so grand, so intriguing, and I learned it’s his ability to cultivate relationships with his actors.” As for his cameo in Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s extraordinarily bleak Shin Godzilla, Tsukamoto offered that “Godzilla movies are part of my cinematic heritage, but going into it, I didn’t expect the role to be as important as it was. I was flattered to realize, then and there, that the directors had written it especially for me.”
Tsukamoto said that the driving influence of his breakout ’90s genre work was the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo.
In a classic bit of journalistic foot-chomping, I asked Tsukamoto about the “angry energy” of his breakout ’90s genre work, but he countered by advising that his driving influence was the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo—a city that “grew up” in postwar tandem with the filmmaker himself. “You could take Tokyo as a symbol of contemporary urbanity unto itself, but I’m not forcing a link there. What I’m interested in is the link between human beings and their environments, and now I’m more interested in nature. Back then I felt a spontaneous drive coming from inside of me, and that’s what appeared on the screen,” Tsukamoto told me. “The city is my most familiar environment. We all felt repressed by it, a kind of love-hate, attraction-repulsion relationship. That contradictory feeling is what shows up in my earlier movies.”
Paul Verhoeven delivered a “masterclass” later that day with veteran French critic Jean-Pierre Lavoignat, a rat-a-tat 90-minute Q&A for an audience comprised of Moroccan students and restless journalists. At the end of a year dominated by adulation for Elle, the Dutch master’s victory lap continues unabated; with his mischievous grin, he came across as the opposite of the prototypically reticent European auteur. Juicy details were dropped, like his insistence that he and Huppert spent on all their time in preproduction discussing “the color of the dress and the styles of the makeup,” advocating no rehearsals or psychology work on Huppert’s character. “We didn’t try to know exactly how she felt, why she felt it or how she would behave in a given situation. I felt from the first moment that I shouldn’t try to direct Isabelle by talking too much. She was so much that character that anything she did was correct, and anyhow, better than what I had in mind.”
Verhoeven said he moved to Hollywood to make RoboCop because his wife forced him to, pointed out Jacques Rivette’s rave of Showgirls in Cahiers du Cinéma as absolution despite concurrent pans in the U.S., and claimed the reason Starship Troopers came out as uncompromised as it did was because “the regime changed every three or four months at Sony. If they had actually looked at the movie, they would have stopped it, because the movie was saying, ’Oh, and by the way, your heroes are fascists.’”
Verhoeven would receive his official FIFM tribute minutes later, ascending the stage to Basil Pouledouris’s Starship Troopers theme after a speech from Huppert and leading with a tale about a film called Crusades that he had intended to shoot in Marrakech decades ago with Arnold Schwarzenegger, before the Carolco Pictures insurance money fell through. (Morocco’s longtime status as a safe harbor for myriad “Eastern” locales in Hollywood productions provided a postmodern schizophrenia to more than a few festival conversations, but that’s neither here nor there.) The clip-show format would be repeated for Tounsi later in the same week, for the Russian tribute and for Isabelle Adjani; here it proved delirious, as a slow-motion replay of Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven screaming into each other’s faces in Turkish Delight silently looped behind Verhoeven just when his speech reached its emotional crescendo—bracketed, naturally, by pauses whereby an Arabic interpreter could relay his gratitude one paragraph at a time. His eyes glistening, Verhoeven mentioned that he’d never before received a tribute in all his 78 years, and was then audibly directed to walk mid-stage to receive his trophy from Huppert—before scampering off to introduce RoboCop (dubbed in French) in the city’s central square in Jma El-Fnaa, one of several screenings in the square suffused with a beneficent, carnival atmosphere.
The lack of cross-pollinating hype at a festival like this is no disadvantage. Whereas Toronto or Sundance screenings boom or bust on word-of-mouth recommendations/dismissals from the attendant press, each movie at FIFM gets two screenings at most, neither of which are almost ever sold out. So when it dawned on me that I was at risk of spending my first two days without seeing a single competition title, it was easy to duck into the single-screen Cinema Colisée—a gorgeous movie palace nestled inside a decrepit apartment building—for Romanian director Adrian Sitaru’s The Fixer. If nowhere near as grandiose in his camera language as his contemporaries Puiu, Porumboiu, or Mungiu, the film can’t help but introduce Sitaru as a serious talent.
The Fixer follows its eponymous go-between, Radu (Tudor Istodor), who, as a trainee for the Agence France Presse, takes it upon himself to organize a French journalist’s interview with a 14-year-old victim (Diana Spatarescu) of human trafficking. Sitaru’s attenuation to cultural-lingual fault lines provides the narrative its foundational anxiety. When Radu works a family connection to make his bones as a journalist, a string of consequences swiftly double back to make him doubt the decision on grounds of intent, preparation, or both. Jockeying notions of exploitation and privacy come to a boil at the exact moment he makes himself essential to the scoop, a blistering real-time exchange with the girl in question wherein Sitaru’s camera doesn’t budge beyond the confines of her policeman protector’s SUV.
There’s no Spotlight moment to this film: It exhausts every possible apprehension of journalistic success, putting the viewer as deep in the quagmire as its tenuous protagonists, with only a sliver of notional relief ahead. It also packs perhaps the most bittersweet coda I’ve seen on a movie screen this calendar year. As one chain-smoking flack offers Radu early in his quest for the almighty exclusive, “Enough is as good as a feast.”
The Marrakech International Film Festival runs from December 2—10.