Casablanca Beats review – Morocco’s answer to Fame strikes a chord | Cannes 2021

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Franco-Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch has made a likable, high-energy youth movie that could almost be called the Moroccan answer to Fame and which features that time-honoured plot device: putting on a concert.

Using nonprofessionals playing docu-fictionalised versions of themselves, Ayouch has created a drama revolving around an arts centre for young people that he himself helped to set up in the tough district of Sidi Moumen, called by someone here the Bronx of Casablanca. The school includes a special programme called the Positive School of Hip-Hop. A crowd of smart, talented teens join the class and we watch as they find out the challenges, limits and opportunities of learning self-expression through western-style rap in a Muslim society.

Anas (Anas Basbousi) is a twentysomething rapper who has come to teach at the school – perhaps in retreat from some personal or professional crisis – and immediately comes into conflict with the arts centre authorities who won’t let him spray-paint the classroom with his own designs. We see repeated scenes of lonely Anas away from the school, petting and befriending a dog. Has he no human friends? And he gets off to what looks like an unfortunate start with the students themselves: he asks them to perform some rhymes, which they shyly do, to the polite and supportive approbation of the rest of the class, but he himself tears each person to shreds, saying their lyrics are vacuous.

Is Anas supposed to be quite so obnoxious? I have to say it’s not entirely clear from his performance. But soon students and teacher warm to each other, performing a lot of new material that Anas really likes. But there are flash points: acrimonious discussion about whether they should rap about religion (the unstated conclusion seems to be no) and politics. And when some of the women in the class joyfully find that rap gives them an expressive force undreamed of in the rest of their lives, some of the young men – otherwise fully enthusiastic about swaggeringly sexualised rap for men – start telling them that if they dress and behave demurely, they will not be abused. Some of the kids have awful home lives and some parents show up at the school, outraged at the teaching of shameless singing and dancing. Ayouch creates stylised musical scenes where the kids break into rap during their real lives. And it all builds up to their controversial concert.

It is all presented earnestly and engagingly, though self consciously, and if the political debates are unsolved, well, that could be because they are unsolved in real life. It’s certainly a heartening demonstration that new ideas can flourish in a religious society.

Casablanca Beats screened on 15 July at the Cannes film festival.

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