In Casablanca Beats, director Nabil Ayouch blurs the line between fiction and documentary in the exhilarating story of a charismatic group of young would-be rappers in Morocco.
Loud and Strongby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It seems strange to say a film can be too positive. Casablanca Beats puts rap into an exhilarating context as a way for the upcoming generation in Morocco to achieve self-expression, political change and freedom. The almost-miraculous power of rap shown here as a potential liberator for teens growing up in a repressive society is presented as almost too good to be true.
Handsome, charismatic rapper-turned-teacher Anas (Anas Basbousi) joins the arts centre in Sidi Moumen, a tough, run-down suburb of Casablanca, notorious for crime of all kinds. He inspires his class of wannabe teen rappers to rise above petty gripes and self-censorship and be brave enough to address head-on the political, social and female empowerment issues holding Morocco back.
Though he is the protagonist, Anas lacks back story – why is he living out of the boot of his car and seems to have no friends? – but the film clearly shows us that he doesn’t follow rules when he spray paints his classroom, annoying the tired administrators of the arts centre. He is harsh but kind at heart, and the kids start to blossom under his unorthodox tuition. The focus is on the class. They start to develop the confident ‘attitude’ Anas seeks to instil in them and they rap more fluently about broader issues.
The film leaves the centre to show the restricted home lives of some of the class (Meryem, Amina, Ismael) and the societal deprivation and oppressive patriarchy that they are growing up under. Yet there’s also a lovely scene of girls street dancing freely round a traditionally dressed older woman.
Casablanca Beats premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was the first Moroccan film to compete for the Palme d’or. It is directed by Nabil Ayoush, who is also a co-founder of the celebrated cultural centre Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen where the film is set. The real rap class play fictionalised versions of themselves over two years in the hip hop program called The Positive School of Hip Hop. Anas Basbousi really did leave his career in rap to become a teacher there.
The film is fresh, authentic but a bit of a mixture: the class have inconclusive wordy debates that range in opinions about how they experience life in their country, though their raps are lively and invigorating – so much so that bearded conservatives riot at the thought of a rap concert. It’s no mystery which side of the future Ayoush is on.
This is Ayouch’s second film in the Cannes official selection – the first was God’s Horses , which screened in Un Certain Regard in 2012 and was also set in Sidi Moumen. But while that film dealt with suicide bombers, Casablanca Beats celebrates empowerment and the exhilarating release of finding a voice and being heard.
Casablanca Beats premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released in cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 29 April 2022 in the UK.