Atlas Workshops: Compelling Next Generation Projects From Morocco, Africa, the Arab World

MARRAKECH — Running Nov. 14-17, the 5th Atlas Workshops, the industry-and-talent development program for Moroccan, Arab and African projects at the Marrakech Film Festival, is celebrating its return to an in-person event this time round.

With an increase in submissions, awards, and an ever-larger audience of industry execs checking out projects, the three-day confab showcases some of the brightest, next-gen talent.

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“It’s the fifth edition, and we are super happy to be back in Morocco,” said Thibaut Bracq, head of Atlas Workshops.

This time round, the atelier will present 16 projects in development, five from Morocco, as well as six films in post-production from 11 countries, chosen from 240 applications received.

“One of the ideas with the new artistic direction at the festival was to create a space for African and Arab filmmakers to meet and present projects,” says Bracq. “The idea was for Marrakech to be a place to bring together those filmmakers. There is a new generation of talented filmmakers from the region,  and they are making their way here and on into other festivals.”

Amongst the pics selected for the Atlas Projects in Development section this year is a buzzy debut-feature from Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Dania Bdeir. Her award-winning short “Warsha” won a 2022 Sundance jury prize for international fiction. Front Row picked up MENA rights to the film which bends gender roles with its story of a crane worker with a secret passion.

Taking part in the atelier, her debut feature “Pigeon Wars” challenges patriarchy in Lebanon. It tells the story of a strong young woman determined to win Beirut’s male-dominated pigeon wars.

“It is a super strong year for Lebanon, and you know how difficult it is there now,” says Bracq. “ “‘Pigeon Wars’ is by a contemporary filmmaker, tackling contemporary issues. She is looking at patriarchy. You can feel that in many films now but here a man is also suffering from  patriarchy.”

The film also underscores another trend. “More and more films are being made by diaspora filmmakers from the region based in other countries, and we are connecting to more of them here,” Bracq comments.

Another example, and buzz title, is “Congo Boy.” Congolese multi-hyphenate Rafiki Fariala, its director, grew up as a refugee in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Drawing upon his story, “Congo Boy” tells the story of a teenage refugee from the Congo with musical ambitions, who is made responsible for his younger siblings in their new CAR home. Establishing himself first as a musician, Fariala’s documentary “We, Students!” was the first film from CAR to go to the Berlinale and its Panorama sidebar, screening this year..

“We like to support filmmakers switching to fiction from documentary,” says Bracq. It’s an autobiographical fiction and also about his story as a filmmaker.”

There has been an increase in entries from Sub-Saharan Africa, in general, he notes. These includes the debut feature “Lënde,” a Senegal-France-Belgium production directed by Katy Lena Ndiaye. Her second feature looks at a fisherman’s neighborhood sinking under rising water levels in St. Louis.

In “Demba,” a film by Sensgal’s Mamadou Dia, frames grief and loss, experienced by a retiring male widow, in a country where there is no word for depression and mental health is taboo.

Says Bracq: “There is a strong selection from Sub-Saharan countries this year. It has been a long process. We have been waiting for one to two years. It can be a painful process to select films too early. Finally, it’s the right moment for them.”

From Morocco, Meryem Benm’Barek made the cut for this section with “Behind the Palm Trees.”

“Another objective here is to help grow the local industry,” added Bracq.

The atelier has expanded its remit, since its last physical event, growing its co-production market and adding more workshops and prizes. At its heart, however, it remains a boutique event.

“We support filmmakers with a co-production market to help present their work to professionals,” says Bracq. “We have more awards and the amount has doubled now, but we came to the same idea that we had from the beginning. Not being a market, but being an exchange and support platform for the 250 professionals taking part. We don’t want to be a huge market but to focus on quality projects.”

He adds: We had two years online, with two digital editions. We developed the lab part and co-production market in the last two years. We have a lot of interesting projects because we have an effective call for entries and good sales companies responding.”

Projects in Development 

“Behind The Palm Trees,” (Morocco-France)

The second feature from Meryem Benm’Barek, director of the 2015 Oscar-nominated short “Jennah,” whose debut, “Sofia,” won best screenplay at 2018’s Un Certain Regard. Produced by Oscar-nominated (“Days of Glory”) Cannes regular (“France”) Jean Bréhat, the failed romance between a young Moroccan and rich French expat woman is set against the backdrop of France’s domination of Morocco.

Behind The Palm Trees
Behind The Palm Trees

Children of God,” (“Benimana” Eijo Ciné, Rwanda-Ivory Coast-Senegal)

Carthage Film Festival awardee Marie-Clémentine Dusabejambo’s (“Lyiza”) first feature explores trauma and reconciliation, following the Tutsi genocide in 1994, in her native Rwanda. Self-taught, she visited the subject as a screenwriter on Yves Montand’s Niyongabo film, “Maibobo,” about street kid orphans of the genocide.

“Congo Boy” (Mahongo Films, Congo-France)

In his second feature, Congolese multihyphenate Rafiki Fariala (“We, Students!” “Camille”), focuses on a Congolese refugee with musical ambitions. In his new home, in the Central African Republic, he is distracted by caring for his siblings, after his parents are imprisoned fleeing the Congo. “We, Students!” was selected for Berlinale Panorama section and other fests.

“Demba,” (Joyedidi, Senegal)

Tisch School of the Arts’ graduate Mamadou Dia explores grief and healing in second feature “Demba.” Demba is about to retire from his city hall job in Senegal grief and depression, after the death of his wife,  in a society that has no word for the latter, and where mental health is taboo. Dia’s first feature, “Nafi’s Father,” hailed as “engrossing” by Variety, represented Senegal at the Oscars and competed in Locarno’s Cinema of the Present section in 2019.

Ghost Ship,” (Les films du bilboquet, Mali – France -Cameroon)

An award-winning artist and alum of the Bamako Conservatory and France’s Fresnoy-Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Malian Helmer Moïse Togo made the Sundance short section this year with his African Albinism project “$75,000.” His second feature “Ghost Ship” explores trauma and guilt around African migrants whose hopes and dreams sink in the Mediterranean.

La Mer Au Loin” (Barney Production, Morocco-France)

In his second feature, French-Moroccan filmmaker Saïd Hamich Benlarbi asks the question of whether love and friendship save us from loneliness and exile. The 1990’s era film is set on the fringes in Marseille. His debut feature, Moroccan drama “Return to Bollene,” was nominated for the Prix Louis-Delluc. Hamich’s short, “Le Départ,” was selected for 100 festivals and nominated for a Cesar.

“Lende” (Tact Production, Senegal – France – Belgium)

In her second feature, Katy Lena Ndiaye – whose African female painters docu “Traces, Women’s Imprints”  won the Montreal Art Film Festival’s Grand Prix du Jury prize in 2006 – connects past and the present through shifting landscapes in Senegal and the story of a St. Louis couple, torn in opinion, as the water rises in the neighborhood.

“Pigeon Wars” (Né à Beyrouth Films, Lebanon-Canada)

A buzzy debut-feature from Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Dania Bdeir. Her award-winning short “Warsha” won a 2022 Sundance jury prize for international fiction. Front Row picked up MENA rights to the film which bends gender roles with its story of a crane worker with a secret passion.

“So The Lovers Could Come Out Again” (Bee On Set Productions, Lebanon)

The second feature for Lebanese-Argentine director George Peter Barbari, about two men coming together in an absurd situation and making the most of it. His first feature,“Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living,” made the Panorama cut at the 71st Berlinale, and won the Jury Prize and Fipresci Award at the Istanbul Film Festival. It was picked up by Front Row.

“The Passport” (Salaud Morisset, Palestine-France)

A first feature for Palestinian director Rakan Mayasi, inspired by the death of his father. In this film, a passenger from Gaza dies flying to Canada. But the Gaza borders are closed to return his unidentified corpse. Mayasi’s five shorts … “Sea Sonata,” “Roubama,” “Bonboné,” “Trumpets in the Sky,” and “The Key”…  have all played at international festivals.

“Whale Belly” (Studio 15, Egypt)

For his debut feature Sameh Alaa tells the story of a 17-year-old girl bored with life at home with her father. She’s stuck deciding whether to wait for a miracle or make some excitement for herself. Alaa’s short “I am Afraid to Forget your Face” became in 2020  the first Egyptian film win a Cannes Palme d’Or.

Whale Belly
Whale Belly 18

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