December 11, 2019


Big in Morocco

By Andy Hazel
Big in Morocco

Gillian Armstrong and Jack Thompson at the at the Marrakech International Film Festival.

Australian cinema finds a new audience at the Marrakech International Film Festival

“We made the first feature film on earth. So everyone can suck our…”
Actor Ben Mendelsohn trails off as the eyes of the journalists around me widen slightly. “Wikipedia that shit, that’s ours. All you other motherfuckers just ran after us,” he says with a laugh that instantly permits a wave of nervous laughter to follow. “We just dropped the ball for 50 or 60 years, and then we picked it up again.”

Like Mendelsohn, many of those who did the “picking up” in the 1970s and ’80s, after decades of an almost non-existent film industry, have been brought together in Morocco at Marrakech’s La Mamounia Hotel. It is a place so exclusive that it has its own scent and a design that even Wes Anderson might regard as a bit too tastefully opulent. Each year, the Marrakech International Film Festival focuses on the output of a country or region. For its 19th iteration, the focus turned to Australia, and the budget of its benefactor – Morocco’s Crown Prince Moulay Rachid – extended to flying out as many cinematic icons as it could manage.

“If the plane had gone down, we would have lost an entire generation of Australian cinema history, truly,” director Gillian Armstrong told me earlier that day. “On the way over, in the Etihad Lounge, it was so moving to see everyone come in. There’s Jack Thompson with his beard down to here.” She gestures to her ribcage. “There goes John Duigan, Fred Schepisi and Jan [Chapman]. There is such an incredible group of Australian filmmakers here from the most senior to the youngest. I mean, I want to know why this isn’t actually on ABC News, someone should be filming it,” she says, looking around to check. 

Joining them in the 25-strong delegation are fellow directors Bruce Beresford, Rolf de Heer, Mirrah Foulkes, Simon Baker and David Michôd, and actors Naomi Watts, Anthony LaPaglia, Richard Roxburgh, Radha Mitchell, Abbie Cornish, David Wenham and Geoffrey Rush. 

“We started with a list of everybody who has been important in Australian cinema over the last 50 years, but of course not all of them are free,” says festival programmer Olivia Weemaes. The absence of many could be put down to the festival’s clash with the AACTA Awards, and that those currently working on films and TV series are hoping to complete production before Christmas. “Moroccans don’t really know many Australian films,” Weemaes continues. “They maybe know Muriel, Priscilla and Crocodile Dundee.”

Alongside presenting their films as part of the retrospective, the Australian guests were feted at the Tribute to Australian Cinema, a black-tie, red-carpet event introduced by head of the festival jury, Tilda Swinton.

“It’s my sincere and personal honour to have been afforded this chance to welcome my Australian cousins,” Swinton enunciated crisply, prior to presenting a commemorative award to Gillian Armstrong and Jack Thompson. “My mother was born in the wilds of New South Wales, and I am currently preparing to shoot for the first time ever in Australia next year, with the sublime George Miller, whose first Mad Max masterpiece we will watch here together tonight.”

While Mad Max played to a packed house, it turns out few locals attend the Australian retrospective screenings at a small cinema in the Yves St Laurent Museum. There were similar turnouts for the previous year’s focus on Russian cinema; the screenings are more a mark of respect for the achievements of the directors and actors than a chance to win new converts. Also, many of the older Australian films have not been subtitled, which perhaps partly explains their smaller audiences. 

“Wow,” gasps Jack Thompson as he sees a 40-years younger version of himself appear on screen at the beginning of Breaker Morant. Thompson’s awestruck face looking at a young confident man in uniform creates something of a postmodern tableau. “I haven’t seen that film since 1980,” he says later as he and the film’s director, Bruce Beresford, discuss its production. The opinion during the Q&A is that, like many of the films in the tribute, it more than holds up in 2019.  Breaker Morant tells the story of Australia’s role in the dying days of the Boer War, a series of brutal battles that played out at the other end of the continent on which we stand. Contemporary parallels for its tale of colonialism, war crimes and scapegoating are not difficult to find.

“The idea of the festival is to be a bridge between those two cultures that have been in opposition since the festival started, which was nearly 20 years ago, right after the terrorist attacks,” says Weemaes. “Back then, all of the American guests and half of the other guests cancelled, but the Prince said they would not be stopped by terrorists. That’s something the festival confronts every year, this fear of coming to a Muslim country. But it hasn’t stopped some of the greatest directors and actors. Martin Scorsese has been five times now.”

Apart from what is now standard procedure for non-Australian film events – airport-style scanners, idling security personnel and patrolling police – the festival doesn’t feel oppressive. In fact, it feels like an extension of Moroccan social life. Screenings are typically accompanied by blinding flashes of mobile phones and quiet conversations. And, Weemaes assures me, the films are not censored. “It is one of the only festivals in the Arab world that isn’t censored. Of course, the films we show in the [Jamaa el-Fna] Square, films that are screening for anyone who happens to be on the streets, that has to be for a general audience.”

The primary focus of the festival is its “In Competition” section, open exclusively to first- or second-time feature filmmakers. This year Australia was represented by Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth. The film’s warm-hearted and surprisingly funny story of a teenage girl with cancer and her love for a slightly older drug addict stars Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn and newcomer Toby Wallace. Wallace, who won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival last October, wins the equivalent award here in Marrakech for his turn as addict Moses. On accepting the award on Wallace’s behalf, Ben Mendelsohn describes him as “a spectacular young Australian actor who in this film traverses the difficult territory of a drug addict and a ne’er-do-well, which poses many pitfalls for an actor, and [he] floats above it in a sublime way.” 

At its Le Colisée Cinema screening, scenes of sex and nudity in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang (subtitled in French but not Arabic) drew heckling, laughter, cries of “aiii” and the ejection of some patrons who refused to stop filming the screen on their phones. Those who stayed frequently winced at the violence, covered their ears at louder scenes and audibly responded to those in which Ned was not having a good time of things, which was often. Ultimately, the sustained applause at the end suggests that Kurzel’s bloody, profane, queer take on Peter Carey’s book was appreciated. It’s a collective experience that may not occur again: most of its audience will see the film at home via a streaming service when it is released on Stan in late January.

Other Australian films do not elicit such a vocal response. The crowd remained silent for Bruce Beresford’s survivalist epic Black Robe but erupted into applause at its conclusion, with journalists mystified by the film’s relative obscurity, one claiming it was “more The Revenant than The Revenant” and “a masterpiece”. “What did DiCaprio do in that film?” asks Beresford of the actor’s Oscar-winning performance when I mention the connection later. “He crawled around in the snow for most of the film and hardly said anything!”  Similarly, a French-dubbed public screening of Scott Hicks’s Shine in the city’s vibrant Jamaa el-Fna Square is all but drowned out by the wailing blasts of the snake charmers’ pungi, the drumming of mobile bands and the clamour of the markets. 

“The best films around the world are the ones where the director and the writer have written and observed human behaviour or human situation with real truth and honesty and depth,” says Gillian Armstrong of the festival selection. “And it’s that very thing that is a key to humanity. It’s completely international. And that’s why I can see a Moroccan film about a boy and his mother, and I’ll relate to it. All of our films here, and I think it is a really great mix, they all show a different side to us. In the beginning when I first started going to festivals overseas basically everyone thought Australia was outback, red desert kangaroos hopping down the main street. But I think that our films have shown that we’re a much more complicated society.”

It’s certainly an opinion shared by those who see them. Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career plays especially well, with a lengthy Q&A attended by local film students reinforcing the film’s pioneering importance. John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke also finds an appreciative, if slightly older, crowd. One local asks Duigan about the role of film preservation in Australia, which gives the director a chance to lament the lack of interest in the sector shown by recent governments.

“Each film often represents a small chapter in the life story of a country,” he says. “In Australia the government gives dwindling amounts of money to the industry as a whole. And as a result, there is a real risk that films like this will actually fade away before they get preserved. It’s a great tragedy that the Australian government doesn’t fully recognise the value of the legacy of film. I’ve seen a couple of Moroccan films, for example, which tell me a tremendous amount about your society, and films are in many ways one of the best calling cards, collectively, for a society because we have taken images of our country and our society with all its imperfections, to all sorts of parts of the world, and that needs to continue.”

It is certainly continuing in this cultural outpost, on the edge of a vast continent on the other side of the world.

Andy Hazel

Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer and The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

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