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How to Grow a Film Festival

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It's been nine years since I last attended the Marrakech Film Festival and I had numerous apprehensions about accepting the invite this year based on my previous experiences back in 2003.

These included a disastrous visit to the Souk, where I had a snake thrown on my arm by a disgruntled local and a monkey placed on my head while trying to film general views of the city. I also remember the longest alcohol-free dinner known to man, sitting all alone at a table in a corner because I forgot my dinner jacket.

I remember feeling incredibly lonely. There were very few international press to hang around with and the festival felt very small - the red carpet at Le Palais des Congres seemed more like a doormat than a catwalk and to the naked eye it was difficult to tell that a film festival was actually taking place.

If memory serves me right, I seemed to spend more time during the day in my rather unappealing hotel room watching television I didn't understand than I did at the festival.

Cut to 2012, and I am quite frankly stunned by how much this North African festival has grown.

Now the red carpet is around the same size as Berlin's, the amount of official festival stands and offices are the same as Venice, the opening night party at the Taj Palace was as extravagant as Cannes and there's a very definite film festival buzz in the air.

As it happens, the festival's current artistic director Bruno Barde first visited the festival the same year as I did and he told me in his office he felt the same vibe back then.

"I came here the same time as you to Marrakech to see everything and after the festival I said to Melita (Toscan du Plantier, director of the festival) that this is not a real film festival. We have to organise things differently."

And organising things differently meant changing the date from the warm October to (the quite frankly chilly) December, and focusing on the films and the directors rather than enrolling A-list glamour - something most up-and-coming film festivals wouldn't dare to do for fear of no press coverage.

"I think that now in this world where things are completely lazy and easy and where we believe that celebrities and the talent are the same thing, here we never do that. We are very demanding - very demanding."

"I think that the story of cinema is the story of the director. It's like a painter. I don't care who he paints - I'm interested in Leonardo Da Vinci!"

The programme this year reflects that. It's governed by a focus on 'talent' with master classes by Darren Aronofsky and Jonathan Demme and homage evenings to the likes of Zhang Yimou, Isabelle Huppert, and Karim Abouobayd.

The glamour of the festival comes in the voluptuous figures of Gemma Arterton and Monica Bellucci but for once these designer clad actresses are not the highlight. That honour (to date) went to the 'Homage to Hindi Cinema' which saw the locals descend into an almost ecstatic state at the sight of Indian megastars Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan.

Both held open air screenings of their classic Hindi films in the Djemaa El Fna square outside the Souq.

And I realised while watching Shah Rukh Khan showboating on a barrier in front of thousands of beaming faces, and then sprinting away from his security to meet his cheering fans that the locals are what have made this festival have its buzz - not just the ones at the outdoor screenings but the others helping out around the festival who say 'Bonjour' every time you pass them.

Bruno explained that "if the people couldn't come to the cinema we had to meet the people where they are and because of this, nine years ago I said ok, we have to show everything in public.

"We went from an international festival to which the Moroccan people could participate to an international film festival made by Moroccan people for the Moroccan people. All the things you see are made by the local people - the sets, the red carpet, everything and it's very important because we are creating jobs."

And, according to Barde, the festival has also had a major impact on the local film industry.

"In the past few years, they've produced a lot of films and made good films. We've had Moroccan films that have done well in Berlin, in Venice, in Cannes but the biggest change is that the Moroccan people are now proud of this festival and proud to welcome these film makers."

I have to say that all these changes have certainly revolutionised the Marrakech Film Festival experience, and it's gone from a dismal environment to a joyous one. If it continues to go forward in this direction, it shouldn't be too long before it's as celebrated as its established European counterparts.

On a personal level, this year I haven't felt lonely at all. You seem to get a lot of respect from the locals by wearing your festival badge so I've had no encounters with monkeys or snakes.

And I've spent much less time in my rather unappealing hotel room in which - I'm proud to say - I haven't watched any television I didn't understand.