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Politics Threaten to Upstage Films at Morocco's International Festival


MARRAKECH, Morocco--Just about the last thing the world needs, one might think, is yet another film festival. And, in truth, last year's inaugural International Film Festival here got off to a faltering start, scheduled as it was only days after Sept. 11.

Many visitors and delegates either canceled plans to visit or were simply unable to arrange flights to Morocco. Yet the awful events of that day have unexpectedly provided the Marrakech festival with a reason to exist.

The implications of Sept. 11 were the main talking point at the second festival, which ended Sunday night. The troubling events of the last year have allowed Marrakech to position itself as a different kind of gathering, one that offers a clear alternative worldview to established European festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice, all of which keep at least one eye firmly fixed on Hollywood.

As one might expect of a festival in an Arabic-speaking country with a huge Muslim population, Marrakech wants to assert the value of films and filmmakers from non-Western countries. One press conference after another last week was marked by hand-wringing, mostly from European and American liberals, about the negative portrayal of Arab characters in Western films.

Marrakech jury member Anna Thomson, an American actress who often works in France and is best known for her roles in "The Crow" and "Unforgiven," set the tone by declaring, "I'm embarrassed to be American." She added that she believes Americans were "the victims of bizarre propaganda" in their media, which took the form of "ghastly lies about Arab people that are just not true." Her comments were widely applauded.

Another jury member, Moroccan poet and philosopher Abdellatif Laabi, said he believes the festival has huge significance.

"Why not [a film festival] in Marrakech, or Tehran or any other city of that sort?" he asked. "It's the end of a logic that says there should be only one cultural value for one time and place." Non-Western nations, he added, must be regarded not only as potential consumer markets but also countries that can create. "This festival," said Laabi, "is about the end of preconceptions."

President Bush was not popular among those who attended the festival, and he came under attack repeatedly during a six-hour symposium dominated largely by French intellectuals titled "The Power and Responsibility of Film." For long passages, this symposium seemed merely an excuse to castigate U.S. foreign policy.

Francis Ford Coppola, who received an award from the festival's foundation, was in a somber mood; at a press conference, he launched into a long history of the differences between Israelis and Palestinians. He also bemoaned the tendency in the West to stereotype Arab characters.

"For years, movies needed bad guys," Coppola said. "International distributors need films with action and conflict. You could make beautiful films about [Arab life and culture], but I don't know any [American filmmaker] who knows anything about it."

Another American director, David Lynch, who was in Marrakech to receive an award for his work from French actress Catherine Deneuve, took a different tack. Asked what he thought of his country's post-Sept. 11 behavior, Lynch replied, "This is a film festival. It might be better to focus on film." And that sentiment, too, received applause.

Still, it hasn't been all solemnity in this vibrant and sometimes chaotic Moroccan city, in which almost every building is painted ochre or salmon pink. No film festival is immune to the charisma of visiting celebrities; apart from Coppola, Deneuve and Lynch, the presence of the formidable veteran French actress Jeanne Moreau, here as president of the jury, caused a buzz. Matt Dillon arrived to show his first film as a director, "City of Ghosts," which is set in Cambodia. Reactions were mixed.

More excitement surrounded the appearance of veteran French pop star Johnny Hallyday (Morocco, until 1956 a French colony, remains largely Francophone). Hallyday made a surprisingly strong debut as a taciturn bank robber in Patrice Lecomte's affecting French film "L'Homme du Train."

Marrakech has another trump card: one of the world's most spectacular outdoor locations in which to show a film. This is a large space among the ruins of the 16th century sandstone El Badi Palace, just inside the walls of the Medina, or old city.

Bleachers were built in front of a huge screen, and watching films there on a balmy night under a full moon in a cloudless sky, with the old palace ramparts dramatically illuminated, was an unforgettable experience.

The festival did suffer setbacks. Martin Scorsese had been expected in Marrakech to receive an honor from Morocco's king, Mohammed VI. The king, patron of the festival and considered a movie buff, refuses to watch dubbed films; he insists on subtitled versions, according to courtiers.

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