Stories of young talents working their way to maturity and success via classes in music/dance/poetry etc. have become their own genre, and a pretty dull one by now. But director Nabil Ayouch gets it right in Casablanca Beats, communicating the creative excitement of hip-hop from the Moroccan ghetto, where a dedicated former rapper teaches it with cool, focused passion. It’s the first of Ayouch’s features to land in Cannes competition (Horses of God played in Un Certain Regard, Much Loved in Directors’ Fortnight) and its mix of political messaging and rousing songs should rally both critics and audiences.
Perhaps the news here is that the film is not about the individual talent and personal success of the cast members (who are terrific), but about the power of music and how that power works. The ending is not upbeat but a loud, angry work in progress. Apart from the film’s natural audience of hip-hop fans, the control with which it’s made and the excitement it generates gives it real crossover potential.
Energetic and hopeful.
Given the story’s gritty realism, it comes as no surprise that the screenplay is based on Ayouch’s own experiences opening a cultural center for young people on the outskirts of Casablanca. The neigborhood of Sidi Moumen was already infamous as a cradle of suicide bombers and terrorists, and his idea was to teach teens how they could use the Bronx-born rhythms of rap and hip-hop to turn their desperation into artistic self-expression. Casablanca Beats captures that dream, along with some tough realities. Ayouch’s most personal feature film, it infects the audience with its passion and the unshakable belief that a person who has self-confidence and self-expression can really change society.
This fictionalized account of the Positive School of Hip Hop tackles subjects that were taboo in Morocco not long ago — politics, Islam, religious extremism, the role of women in Muslim society. The story begins when a well-known ex-rapper named Anas (masterfully played by rap artist Anas Basbousi) arrives in Sidi Moumen to teach his first class. That he is an outsider is clear from the uncertainty with which he drives his car into the area, searching for a cultural center no one has heard of. His commitment to what he is doing is concisely conveyed by the fact that he sleeps in his car — which no one comments on.
In the center, Ayouch just needs to set up a tense conversation between Anas and the woman who runs the place to indicate he’s an innovative type with out-of-the-box ideas. He relates to his students, an extroverted bunch of street-smart kids (about equally split between girls and boys) as a group, rather than seeking out a star.
In a mini history lesson on rap, Anas cites African-American culture in the U.S. and the changes that permitted the election of Barack Obama and fueled the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia. Soon he has the class working together. His stern, no-tears attitude shows he takes his subject seriously, but it may be too rigid an approach for kids who face huge struggles at home, parental opposition, even hunger. Their human problems emerge with a touching naturalness, rather than through scripted drama.
Having come from a similar background, Anas systematically pushes back on the weakness and sentimentality of the poetry they write. The big issue is self-censorship, particularly in lyrics that touch on religion or politics. Some fear they’ll be arrested if they talk about these subjects in public, but Anas urges them to use their music against the state to defend their civil rights.
Islam is a big issue for Abdou, a religious youth who looks at his female classmates askance but still wants to express himself through hip-hop. He earns our respect when he says hip-hop isn’t about faith; if you have self-confidence and a good image of yourself, the extremists can’t buy you. This is the film’s philosophy in a nutshell. Though Anas never voices a direct opinion in class, his attitude is made clear when the muezzin calls the neighborhood to prayer (the streets are impressively packed with the faithful) and Anas, observing them from a distance, pets a dog.
Some of the most interesting culture clashes occur over gender issues when the boys laughingly tell off the girls for not covering up and being “decent.” Several of the girls wear tight-fitting hijabs to hide their hair and neckline, while others look like punk rebels off the streets of Paris. Amina, perhaps the most openly religious, insists that “religion is sacred, we have to draw the line,” but another girl in a hijab angrily asserts her right to dress and rap as she likes. They aren’t afraid to talk about their bodies, dance on stage or to push back with their conservative families and domineering brothers.
The camera often stays disturbingly close on faces, creating a nervous tension echoed in the editing. The tremendous energy that can be generated by hip-hop at full volume is on display in a climactic group dance on stage.
The kids are natural performers whose verses grab the attention, but holding the story together is Basbousi. The first shot of him driving in profile emphasizes his resemblance to an Egyptian god, but the reassuring aura of control he generates is based on the soft authority of understanding and commitment. The music is the other major protagonist and should be a strong attraction for audiences, even those with little experience of hip-hop.