Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 15, 2022 8:31 am 
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A vibrant docudrama about young Moroccan rappers

This beautifully shot and dynamically edited* film by French-born Moroccan Arab veteran filmmaker Nabil Ayoub thrills with its bursting energy - and the percussive shock and strange click-talk sputter of Moroccan Arabic (for this longtime student of Arabic and onetime resident of Morocco, still a perpetual astonishment). Language is central because these kids are constantly rapping - in the dialect, the dirija, captured like lightening in a bottle. But the main astonishment is the enthusiasm of the young rappers - and how many of them are female. They come to boast and complain, to vaunt their skill with words and lament the tough life they're lived in this poor district - and to be cheered and chanted on - because this esprit de corps prevails.

The theme of ghetto kids inspired by a young charismatic coach-teacher in a local arts school to become confident performers in a climactic concert is a familiar one. But wait till you see Casablanca Beats (known in French as Haut et fort, and in Arabic as علي صوتك "Lift your voice"). Its beauty, authenticity, and language are indigenous and fresh. Clearly this is an imperfect film, but the spirit it captures is priceless.

They had me from the intro, where the tall, deep-voiced Anas (Anas Basbousi), a rapper himself, arrives to lead the rap section of a neighborhood cultural center in a poor part of Casablanca (actually cofounded by director Nabil Ayouch and known as Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen). Threading into a hazy skyline full of subtle color, Anas arrives in his car, and he later turns out to be living out of it. As Deborah Young says in her Cannes Hollywood Reporter review, the camera angles in this opening sequence show his profile to be like an ancient Egyptian god's. But here, the god at first is lost. He winds up on a small road leading nowhere. He doesn't know this neighborhood, Sidi Moumen, notorious as a breeding ground for suicide bombers and terrorists.

And he'll be at odds with the lady administrator. She will reprimand him for tagging his classroom wall with a mural of colorful graffiti, saying it's not "his" room because others use it too. He will be fending off members of the community hostile to hip hop. He starts out feisty with the kids, condemning and disparaging the first young rappers who perform in the class. It's an overbearing moment; but Anas slips to the back of the room mostly hereafter, still a constant, now positive, presence, remaining interesting by being mysterious. How and why he is here this way is unknown, maybe a personal or professional crisis: he says he has completely rejected and moved on from his former life. In private moments he's seen only petting and hugging a black dog, as if he has no friends.

One by one young people emerge. There are no real "stars," hardly even Anas, and group spirit dominates, aided by the influence of spirited, wildly gestural beat boxing and dance sessions led by an older teacher. A couple of guys with high-topped hair and long necks are a joyous two-man rap team. Wait to see all the kids joyously jive to their catchy, curiously uplifting song, "(Everybody wants) drahm drahm drahm (money money money)" - performed again with more polish at the climactic public concert. One smaller, baby-faced kid with round specs does spot-on click-rhythms and says on the street he's put down as a doofus or wuss. One young man, a latecomer, is a devout Muslim, and explains why he still considers rapping right to do. They call him "the Imam" and his pious superiority to the girls is annoying; but his adaptation to this musical genre shows its flexibility and appeal. Some girls are thoroughly modern, others wear degrees of veils: all are intense and angry about their repression and poverty. One girl Anas says writes lyrics of a person thirty years older. Rap here (as Olivia Savage says in her Loud and Clear review) is being honed not just as personal expression but a collective tool of revolution and protest.

A dark-robed mother comes to take her girl away, one of several conservative relatives who try to block the kids from an activity they say is dirty or vulgar, which of course for them it very much could be. Anas rebuffs them. The "beardies" are all around here: Islamic conservatism has dug in over recent decades in this poor district, with the ugly results we have mentioned. The cultural center, Positive School of Hip Hop, is a counter-force.

As Jessica Kiang's Cannes Variety review says, this is "an exuberant mixture of street musical, inspirational-teacher drama and documentary advocacy." The street musical involves the tradition as Bradshaw says in his Cannes Guardian review, of the run-up to a concert. He even calls the film "Morocco's answer to Fame," though that's wildly mixing genres, because this is in every second raw documentary-real, and Fame is a slick commercial charmer. This film's value is its use of real people, real moments, not its storytelling, and it lacks polish and its points aren't subtle or its ideas cutting edge.

Some staged elements feel false. We can be a suspicious of the administrator's arguments with Anas and the relatives' fights to take kids out of the program and "the Imam's" meet-ups with other devout young Muslims. It's unlikely they were caught as they happened or that he could rebuff opponents so successfully. But the kids' arguments and self-defense and their rap performances leading to more polish and better presentation (shot at the cultural center over a two-year period) all feel like they're caught largely on the fly. So much so that there's little effort at presenting clear-cut individual trajectories. This is more a film of intense moments. In that it shines and toward the end a sequence of close-ups of individuals is beautiful. As Kiang says the film is "perhaps a little glib" in suggesting choral unanimity and "flattening" disagreements, but the energy is captured. No wins, no contracts, no resolutions, for there can be none. Rounding everything out, after chaos and conflict at the public concert, Anas departs, loudly rap-serenaded by the kids from a rooftop as he smilingly gets back in his car and drives off: mission accomplished; lives changed.

Casablanca Beats علي صوتك "Lift your voice", 104 mins., debuted Jul. 15, 2021 in Competition at Cannes. Ayouch has had several other films there but in other sections. My review of Much Loved (Directors Fortnight 2015, R-V 2016). Several other festivals including AFI in the US. This film isn't Ayouch's first to represent Morocco at the Oscars; it is his seventh feature. Nov. 17, 2021 theatrical release in France as Haut et fort (AlloCiné press rating 3.2, i.e. 62%). Distributed in the US by Kino Lorber, it opens Sept. 16 at the IFC Center in NYC.
*Camera: Virginie Surdej, Amine Messadi. Editors: Marie-Hélène Dozo, Yassir Hamani, Julia Grégory. Music: Mike Kourtzer, Fabien Kourtzer (Variety).



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