Director Farida Benlyazid Reflects on Trailblazing Career at Marrakech Tribute

For years Morocco’s lone female director, Farida Benlyazid forged an untrodden path, exploring Moroccan women’s stories onscreen while opening new doors into the industry on the strength of personal passion and perseverance. And so, when Benlyazid took the stage to receive a tribute at the Marrakech Film Festival on Wednesday, the trailblazing filmmaker accepted the festival’s trophy as a kind of lifetime achievement honor for a career with very few equals.

Addressing a packed house replete with local press, adoring fans, and festival guests, Benlyazid struck familiar and familial tones, singling out each of her children and grandchildren who sat beaming behind jury president Paolo Sorrentino. Introduced as “The Lady from Tangiers,” the filmmaker retraced the steps of her career, tying her artistic evolution into her personal life’s journey, which began in that polyglot city.

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“In my childhood, Tangiers was international city,” said Benlyazid as she recalled the abundance of Spanish, French, Mexican, American, Indian, and Egyptian films she would flock to as a child. “This variety of culture, all the different ways that humans develop, is in my eyes, the real wealth of humanity [And] it to this cultural diversity that I owe my [2005] film, ‘The Wretched Life of Juanita Narboni.’”

When reflecting on her 1999 Berlinale-selected film “Women’s Wiles,” Benlyazid offered a kind of mission statement for her overarching interest as an artist. “I deal with Islam by exploring women and their beliefs,” she explained.

“In my films, I have tried to reveal the richness of Muslim women’s culture. The stereotypes would paint them as submissive and ignorant, whereas… they have a deep and admirable knowledge. They had an oral cultural memory thanks to a phenomenal capacity to memorize, sing, and recite the poems that have crossed the centuries. They can recount stories without forgetting the tiniest detail.”

A longtime habitué of the Marrakech Festival, Benlyazid had in fact served on the jury for the festival’s inaugural edition way back in the fall of 2001. That very first edition was almost cancelled in those mournful, post-9/11 days, and Benlyazid applauded the Marrakech leadership for maintaining the event and shining light in dark days. The honoree then drew a parallel to this year’s 19th edition, which arrives after two years of pandemic-forced delays.

Addressing her children then grandchildren and then the younger generation writ large, she ended her speech with a bit of advice: “I say to those of you who have chosen to engage in this profession, and to all young people, watch out! [The work is] hard, but it’s exciting, and it’s really worth it, to do what you love. So persevere. Follow first your heart, and then your mind, and keep going!”

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