MARRAKECH, MOROCCO—The hash-trail metropolis that inspired Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Marrakesh Express” is now host to a world-class film festival. Strict laws have nearly eliminated the lucrative drug trade in the medina, while the western (and Western) section of the city, where the third edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival took place last month, has boomed.

The most provocative movie at this year’s festival, Zaman, the Man From the Reeds, was a small gem from Iraq that French-based Iraqi director Amer Alwan finished just three months before the Coalition of the Willing marched in. The film’s spare style and linear story line belie the controversy it generated in Marrakech—mainly among Iraqis. Elderly Zaman (Sami Kaftan) lives in a reed hut in the southern marshlands with his sick wife, Najma (Shada Salim), who desperately needs medicine no longer available in the country’s depleted pharmacies. He rows his small boat up the Tigris to Baghdad. At a hospital there, a corrupt doctor ignores his plea, but a sympathetic receptionist slips him the medication.

Co-producer Sattar Alwan, the filmmaker’s twin brother, explains that they shot on digital video because “the Americans considered celluloid a chemical agent.” He claims that the Iraqi government, who had a note-taking minder on set, confiscated five of the 29 tapes they shot for unspecified reasons. “Amer doesn’t like that dictator, Saddam,” he says.

“That’s bullshit,” responds Zaid Khatlan, the London-based Iraqi film critic for the Arabic-language daily Al Hayat. “They are Baathists. This is propaganda, a Saddam film. The premise is that there is no medicine because of the embargo. The simplicity minimizes the whole situation onto one man.”

A highly charged point of disagreement is the significance of the Saddam portraits hovering over some scenes. Khatlan sees them as valorization of the man and the regime. Sattar Alwan and lead actor Kaftan, Iraq’s most famous film and stage star, maintain that the photos were meant to point the finger at Saddam for widespread shortages.

The three men are in accord about one thing: the U.S. presence. Kaftan notes, “The Americans opened up the ministries for thieves except for the Ministry of Oil. Still, the Iraqi people believed what the Americans said, that a new government would give them security. Now they ask, ‘Why do you stay?’ ” “With real, enforced sanctions, the government would have fallen in 10 days,” says Khatlan. “The Americans should go now and leave it to us.”