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French Version

Marrakesh film festival captivates crowds with quality cinema both old and new

Open-air screening of Ahmed al-Maanouni's newly restored documentary 'Transes' brings Martin Scorsese, Nass al-Ghiwane to Jemaa al-Fna

After the boldface names, glamorous parties and hushed discussions about possible distribution deals, perhaps the best any international film festival can hope for is to screen films of rare and incomparable artistry, be it powerful or poetic.

The most venerable film festivals in the world were born, after all, of the most inexplicable, intractable love for cinema.

The Marrakesh International Film Festival, which opened with an opulent ceremony at the Palais des Congres Friday night, comes too late in the year to host an onslaught of world premieres. It is too young - and geographically too far removed from the power centers that fuel the global movie business - to be a major player like Cannes.

In terms of regional standing, it doesn't have the institutional status of Cairo, Damascus, Tangier or Carthage. It doesn't have the money to make a splash the size of the new film festivals in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But it does have the chance to forge a reputation as a platform for discovery and a forum for film lovers. Judging from the primary lineup of more than 100 films and the secondary schedule of master classes and other related events, the festival in Marrakesh is taking full advantage of that opportunity.

Of course, the opening reception on Friday night did radiate a considerable amount of celebrity heat. Martin Scorsese awarded a Golden Star statuette to Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been in Morocco for the past three months shooting "Body of Lies," Ridley Scott's forthcoming feature about the war in Iraq, in which the Hollywood heartthrob stars alongside Russell Crowe. The president of this year's jury, Czech-born director and producer Milos Forman, was also on hand to introduce his fellow judges, including American actress Parker Posey, British actor John Hurt, French filmmaker Claude Miller, Senegalese-Malian actress Aissa Maiga (star of Abderrahmane Sissako's critically acclaimed "Bamako") and Indian director Shekhar Kapur (whose latest film, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," screened after the initial festivities).

But otherwise, the festival seems concerned with content and craft over glitz and glamour. It is coursing through key moments of beauty, intrigue and intensity, much like the pacing of vivid scenes in a memorable film. One such moment was Sunday night's open-air screening of Ahmed al-Maanouni's "Transes" on Jemaa al-Fna, Marrakesh's enormous, jostling public square located at the mouth of the old city's labyrinthine souk.

"Transes," titled "Al-Hal" in Arabic and "Trances" in English, is a 1981 documentary about Nass al-Ghiwane, a group of five musicians from the Hay al-Mohammadi neighborhood of Casablanca that formed in the 1960s and became legendary in the 1970s for their mesmerizing blend of Sufi chants, Gnawa beats, Aita intonations and Melhoun poetry. Maanouni's film catches up with Nass al-Ghiwane just after the death of one the group's founding members, Boujemaa Hagour, in 1974. Much more than a concert film, "Transes" pieces together a collage of wild performances, candid interviews, roaming street shots and deeply historical archival footage, all of which digs into the roots of the music.

Seeing "Transes" on a big screen is captivating alone, but Sunday's screening was also coupled with a performance by the band itself, which regrouped in 1999, after the death of percussionist Larbi Batma two years earlier. (Batma's brothers Rachid and Hamid teamed up with the two remaining members of the group, Omar Sayed and Allal Yaala. Abderahman Paco left the band and moved to Essaouira, home of the Gnawa music festival, around the time Larbi Batma was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993.)

In its new formation, Nass al-Ghiwane is nominated for the British Broadcasting Corporation's 2008 World Music Awards. It seems a likely winner, though the band is up against Rachid Taha, who is coincidentally one of many rai superstars to have covered Nass al-Ghiwane's music over the years. During the concert on Sunday, the packed and almost uniformly male crowd sang along reverently to all of Nass al-Ghiwane's lyrics, from elderly men and middle-aged photographers from the local press corps to very young boys (at least those who weren't trying to agitate the security guards by scaling their limbs over the crowd barriers).

According to an accompanying text by Izza Genini, one of the producers of "Transes" and an organizer behind Sunday's double feature, Susan Sontag took note of the film when it was released in 1981. The New York Film Festival screened it later that year, and audiences responded with enthusiasm.

That said, to retrieve a brief review that ran in The New York Times is to unearth a relic of obstinate incomprehension - "Though it is a perfectly straightforward film, it would seem to be better suited to a festival of ethnic or anthropological films," wrote Vincent Canby, who went on to suggest that the English-language subtitles were insufficient in spoon-feeding critics with a brief political and cultural history of a country and perhaps

a continent deemed too distantly other.

Canby's dismissal notwithstanding, a cable television program called "Night Watch" picked up the film and broadcast it over and over again in New York. One night, Martin Scorsese took a break from editing his film "The King of Comedy" and happened upon it. As he told a news conference in Marrakesh on Sunday afternoon, it triggered his interest in the people and culture of Morocco, where he subsequently shot two films, including "The Last Temptation of Christ," which features the Nass al-Ghiwane song "Ya Sah" on the soundtrack. It also tied in with his interest in performance films, from "Woodstock" and "The Last Waltz" to his upcoming movie about "The Rolling Stones." "Performance is primal communication," Scorsese said on Sunday, "more than literature or any visual media."

In addition to honoring DiCaprio, Scorsese is attending this year's film festival in Marrakesh to promote the work of the World Cinema Foundation, the creation of which was announced in Cannes six months ago. The nonprofit organization, which he founded, is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of film heritage around the world. Board members include Fatih Akin, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Abbas Kiarostami, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Wim Wenders and Wong Kar-wai. Coming full circle from that late night encounter 26 years ago, the first film to be fully restored by the foundation is "Transes."

There is a sense in which watching the film now is like getting a long-lost postcard from the dark back of time. It is a kind of time capsule, and very much a counterculture film, with rebellious young things in bellbottoms and big hair writhing around and collapsing to the floor in hypnotic gyrations. Like the North African equivalent of "Woodstock," it also shudders with social, political, economic and cultural reverberations. Morocco in the 1970s was newly independent and churning with potential troubles. Nass al-Ghiwane's music addressed them all (many of them endure still) yet grounded them in an incredibly rich history of creative expression. The group used only traditional instruments, revived ancient poems by El Mejdoub and through its songs salvaged complex rhythms and cast-off stories from ruin.

One of the emerging strengths of the film festival in Marrakesh, which is now in its seventh year, is its commitment to vintage as well as fresh material. In addition to the 15 films (from as many countries) screening in competition, the eight films screening out of competition and the nine films screening in the Coup de Coeur section, the festival is paying tribute to Ingmar Bergman (from 1957's "Wild Strawberries" to 2003's "Saraband"), Michelangelo Antonioni (including the rarely reprised but masterful "Profession: Reporter"), Ahmed Baha Attia (who produced films by Tunisian auteur Nouri Bouzid, among others), Moroccan director Mustapha Derkaoui (rare gems and an infatuation with nightclub singers from the 1980s) and Japanese cineaste Shinji Aoyama (including his latest, "Sad Vacation").

Then there is the 41-film homage to 100 years of Egyptian cinema. It starts with Ahmed Badrakhan's 1937 "Nashid El Amal (The Chant of Hope)"; runs through selections by Salah Abu Seif, Henry Barakat and Tawfiq Saleh; hits star vehicles for Faten Hamama, Rushdie Abaza, Omar Sharif, Suad Husni, Laila Elwy and countless others; and ends with Youssef Chahine's and Khaled Youssef's "Heya Fawda," from 2007.

And finally is an additional panorama on Moroccan cinema, a first for a festival that has typically strived for international reach at the expense

of local product. If you want box-office clout or industry schmooze, there are better venues that than this. But if you want to chance stumbling upon a few reels of genius, Marrakesh is a very good bet indeed.

The Marrakesh International Film Festival continues through December 15. For more information, please call +212 24 324 493 or check out www.festivalmarrakech.info

Marseille,12 17 2007
The Daily Star
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