The Marrakech Film Festival’s sixth Atlas Workshops kicks off today under the fresh curation of former indie film sales agent and publicist Hédi Zardi.
Running November 27 to 30 in a rambling riad on the outskirts of Marrakech, the project and talent incubator is showcasing 25 projects hailing from MENA and Africa, 16 in development and another nine in production or post-production.
Zardi is best known on the market and festival circuit as the former co-founding head of Paris-based sales banner Luxbox, which he created in 2015 with Fiorella Moretti who continues to run the company.
Together, the pair launched a raft of buzzy festival titles on the market, brokering deals to Ava DuVernay‘s ARRAY for Isabel Sandoval’s trans migrant drama Lingua Franca, Oscilloscope Laboratories for Costa Rican Oscar entry Clara Sola by Nathalie Alvarez Mesen, and KimStim for Suzanne Lindon’s coming-of-age debut feature Spring Blossom.
After eight years on the sales circuit, with the tail-end of this period during the Covid-19 pandemic, Zardi is all too aware of the challenges facing non-English language, independent films.
He has brought this knowledge to bear in his first Atlas Workshops selection.
“I was looking for projects that we could up-level and support that are artistically bold but also have a realistic chance of connecting with the market and an audience, whether that be through a classic theatrical release or the platforms,” says Zardi.
“I’ve also tried to bring in different guests that represent new trends in the market. The first editions were very focused on the classic axis of production with France and the bigger European territories. I’ve opened it up to include more producers from territories like Germany and the Nordics, for example, as well as the U.S,” he adds.
U.S. professionals attending this year include Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone producer Alix Madigan as well as War Pony and Manodrome producer Ryan Zacarias.
“I want to open these projects up to other types of finance such as equity financing and not only the classic routes such as European funds, which are becoming harder and harder to secure. On the sales front, we invited people like Charades, Kinology and A24, so big players because I felt there are projects with strong market appeal,” said Zardi. “We’re not niche anymore.”
Zardi’s first selection features a high number of genre films, a development he says chimes with the way MENA and African indie filmmakers are moving away from classic social dramas or observational works.
“There’s a different vibe. The young generation is embracing a wide range of genre. We’re far from the classic social drama. Even if the topic is reflecting the reality of the filmmaker’s territory, the storytelling is different, they’re using another genre code.”
He cites in-development projects such as Tunisian director Youssef Chebbi’s thriller Plague; Lebanese director Sandra Tabet’s drama Rabies, in which rabid dogs invade Beirut; Moroccan filmmaker Ismaël El Iraki’s drugs trafficking clan tale Wolfmother and hit woman action picture Thundering Smoke, the second feature of Finnish-Somali director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed after breakthrough Somali Oscar entry The Gravedigger’s Wife.
“The new generation is not afraid to try something new. The ambition is stronger. They understand that the market is tougher and that if they want to exist, they have to be different,” says Zardi.
In support of this embrace of genre storytelling, the workshop’s talks program features a discussion with Cairo Conspiracy director Tarik Saleh on the use of genre codes such as the thriller and investigative drama in his work, and a case study on the process behind the special in French Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Alaoui’s fantasy drama Animalia, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year.
Alaoui and VFX professionals Arnaud Fouquet, Faycel Azmi and Julien Fouré will discuss how they came up with affordable solutions for the film through collaboration during development and pre-production.
“Animalia is a beautiful achievement visually in terms of its VFX. Sofia Alaoui worked with Arnaud Fouquet in Paris. We’ll talk about how this young director on her first feature shared her vision and built this collaboration,” says Zardi.
“It’s an example of how a filmmaker can build a relationship with a lab and then control the expenses. Filmmakers in the region have the impression that VFX is beyond their means and that they cannot control that cost. What was fantastic about this collaboration was that Arnaud sometimes came up with suggestions of things Sofia could do during the shoot to create an effect, rather than producing it in post-production.”
Alongside the in-development projects, the meeting is also showcasing nine films in production or post-production.
Hot titles in this line-up include two Tunisian features: Motherhood by Meryam Joobeur, who was Oscar-nominated in 2020 for her short film Brotherhood, and Agora, the third feature from Ala Eddine Slim, who won the Luigi de Laurentiis Award for Last Of Us at Venice in 2016.
Representatives of most the key festivals are flying in to watch the work-in-progress screenings including Venice, Toronto and Locarno.
These projects are eligible for three Atlas Prizes for production and post-production worth €30,000, €20,000, and €10,000. This year’s jury features Cannes Critics’ Week head Ava Cahen, top indie Egyptian Clash and Feathers producer Mohamed Hefzy at Cairo-based Film Clinic and Moroccan director Meryem Benm’Barek (Sofia).
There are also four cash prizes for the in-development selection, worth €30,000, €20,000 and two times €5,000.
These will be decided by Danish The Worst Person In The World and Godland producer Katrin Pors at Snowglobe, Moroccan producer Fayçal Hassaïri and French sales agent and distributor Sarah Chazelle at Jour2Fête.
One blow for this edition is the absence of its guest mentor Martin Scorsese who was forced to pull out on the eve of the workshops for personal reasons.
Talking to Deadline shortly after he had broken the news of Scorsese’s absencef, Zardi reports that the participants, who had been due to have personal one-to-ones with the director, were taking his cancellation in their stride.
“To be honest, they’re all really wrapped up in getting their projects and pitches ready. That is their main focus. The nice thing is that while they were disappointed most immediately said they hoped that Scorsese was ok and all wished him well.”