From Berlin to Marrakesh: Christoph Terhechte's vision for Moroccan cinema

After 17 years as head of the Berlin Film Festival's avant-garde section, Germany's Christoph Terhechte now leads Africa's biggest film festival. He tells DW about his aims and inspirations.

After leading the Berlinale's avant-garde Forum section for 17 years, Christoph Terhechte has taken a new post as the artistic director of the Marrakesh International Film Festival.

The festival, which runs November 30 to December 8, 2018 in the Moroccan city, hosts a competition as well as an homage to Robert De Niro, who is expected to attend, along with guest of honor Martin Scorsese.The festival, however, primarily focuses on African films and Arabic-language movies.

Deutsche Welle: Moving from the Berlinale to the Marrakesh  International Film Festival must have been a challenge. What interests you most about your new position?

Christoph Terhechte: After 17 years at the helm of the Berlinale Forum, I'd been thinking about my options. I certainly wasn't planning on staying in Berlin until I retired. The offer from Morocco was also alluring because I'd put together a Moroccan film program for the Forum in 1999. In 2017, I co-curated a retrospective on an almost forgotten Moroccan director, Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011). Two years ago, I went to Rabat to do more research on Bouanani, who totally reinvented film in his country in the 1960s and '70s. I fell in love with Morocco and its film culture.

Filmstill Much Loved

The Moroccan government banned "Much Loved"

What characterizes contemporary Moroccan film?

That's not such an easy question to answer. How should a Moroccan ask what the allure of German cinema is? The Moroccan film industry is much smaller of course; only about 25 movies are shot in the country per year. In March, I was part of the jury at the national film festival in Tangier. Fifteen films were in the running and we actually had a hard time choosing who to give the prize to, because so many of them were exciting. I was very impressed to see so many original and high-quality films in a country that produces around 25 films a year.

How political is Moroccan cinema eight years after the Arab Spring? Can filmmakers work without restraint in their native country?

They can, more or less. Of course, filmmakers take into account their culture's sensitivities. Japanese films take a different position than, for example, Argentine or German films — and it's the same for Moroccan.Sometimes we are surprised at what is actually doable, and other times we think more might have been possible. Cinema is always influenced by the culture in which it is created.

Deutschland Christoph Terhechte

Christoph Terhechte

But filmmakers don't have to encode their stories here out of fear of censorship. For instance, Nabil Ayouch's 2016 film Much Loved is about prostitution and caused quite a stir. It wasn't released in Morocco, but Moroccan film industry also didn't suffer as a result — on the contrary, the film triggered debate.

This festival naturally presents many films from Arab-speaking countries. What can visitors look forward to?

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We will be showing films from Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and Egypt, as well as Nigerian filmmaker Genevieve Nnaji's Lionheart, a so-called Nollywood movie. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, marking the first time a Nollywood production premiered at a major international film festival. Netflix bought the rights to Lionheart.

Rafiki, a Lesbian love story by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu — which ran at the Cannes festival — is another unusual film because it comes from a country that demonizes homosexuality.

Which films are in the competition?

The competition features filmmakers' first or second movies only. Some of the directors are already familiar to the public because their debut feature films were successful.

Screen shot Trailer Film Akasha

The Sudanese comedy "Akasha" is competing for an award

Four films are from Latin America and take place in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Apart from the 14 films in the competition, we're also showing the film that won the Venice award this year, Roma by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron.

The Moroccan movie Urgent is among the films in the competition, along with three other films from the Arab world. Hajooj Kuka's Akasha is about the civil war in Sudan, while Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Magdy's  The Giraffe focuses on the touchy issue of abortion. From Tunisia, there's Nejib Belkadhi's Look at me, a film about people who have returned from Europe.

How different is working in Marrakesh from your previous job in Berlin?

Unlike in Berlin, there are no routine events that I can rely on. The festival didn't take place at all last year and most of the team members are new. We are also redefining a large segment of the festival, which is an exciting challenge. In Berlin, I was able to rely on loyal movie-going audiences, so one of the most important tasks we face in Marrakesh is winning over audiences.