VOD film review: Casablanca Beats
Matthew Turner | On 30, Apr 2022
Director: Nabil Ayouch
Cast: Zineb Boujemaa, Maha Menan, Soufiane Bellali, Marwa Kniniche, Abderrahim Errahmani, Marouane Bennani
French-Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch blurs fiction and documentary to intriguing effect in this engaging drama that’s part street musical and part Inspirational Teacher movie. The energy and vitality of the talented young cast are extremely appealing, but there’s also a frustrating lack of focus in the storytelling.
Set in the Casablanca neighbourhood of Sidi Moumen, the film focuses on a group of students who attend a hip hop programme at a cultural centre called Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen (The Stars of Sidi Moumen), which director Ayouch founded in real life. Consequently, the actual students of the programme, all non-professional actors, play lightly fictionalised versions of themselves.
Also in the mix is Anas (Anas Basbousi), a real-life rapper-turned-teacher. Arriving at the centre to teach the class, he makes an intimidating first impression by brutally critiquing his students’ first rap attempts, urging them to be more authentic and true to themselves. His methods prove effective and the students are soon gearing up for the time-honoured let’s-do-the-show-right-here showcase for their talents.
Throughout the film there is a strong documentary feel to the students and their interactions, perhaps unsurprisingly, since Ayouch is largely filming them in their already familiar environment of hip hop class. This leads to a series of engaging and passionate discussions – with several different viewpoints – on a wide variety of subjects, including religion, politics, cultural appropriation, generational clashes, sexism, sexual harrassment and censorship.
The charismatic young cast are a joy to watch and their growing confidence in finding their own voices and using them as a means of protest is genuinely inspiring. On a similar note, it’s heartening to discover that half the cast are young women and the sense of self-expression the film (and the real-life programme) affords them feels like an important cultural moment.
The main problem with the film is that the blurring between fiction and documentary arguably backfires, because it doesn’t fully satisfy as one or the other. To that end, all the characters have frustratingly little depth and you get little, half-hearted glimpses of subplots (for example, a female student clashing with her older brother over her desire to perform in public) that are left unresolved.
That’s also the case with Anas himself – he’s initially set up as the Inspirational Teacher, but we learn next to nothing about him as a character, other than that he sleeps in a car and likes to befriend stray dogs. There are hints at a past – perhaps a failed music career, perhaps something darker – but they go unexplored and he ultimately takes a back seat. The film lays the framework for the expected Inspirational Teacher story, but refuses to follow it through to its logical conclusion.
Still, while the film occasionally frustrates in terms of its storytelling, it’s undeniably entertaining just to spend time in the company of its vibrant characters, with the accompanying thrill that Ayouch and his cast/students are effecting palpable social change.