CAST: Anas Basbousi, Ismail Adouab, Nouhaila Arif, Samah Barigou, Abdelilah Basbousi, Zineb Boujemaa, Meryem Nekkach, Mehdi Razzouk, Amina Kannan, Soufiane Belali, Maha Menan, Marwa Kniniche
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins
BASICALLY…: In Morocco, a group of disenfranchised youths find themselves able to express themselves through hip-hop…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The Moroccan city of Casablanca is, of course, best known in the realm of film as both the title and location of a certain classic Humphrey Bogart romance from the 1940s – but beyond that immediate recognition, the area is largely unexplored in contemporary film, which gives Casablanca Beats an intriguing opportunity to explore more of its culture, through the eyes of young teen trying to find their own way in the world.
What we get is a pleasant enough drama that takes a look at life in the city, and a subculture operating under its traditional conservative environment which, despite its fractured and largely formulaic approach, the movie has enough spirit and drive to help spring to life.
The movie opens as former rapper Anas (Anas Basbousi) arrives in the working-class neighbourhood of Sidi Moumen in the Moroccan capital, to begin teaching hip-hop to teens at a local cultural centre. Anas’ approach to his class is not just how to spit rhymes like the pros, but to open up their minds to the cultural and socio-economic issues that hip-hop was first formed in, and then encourage his students to rap about their own problems within the society they have grown up around. Soon, his students find topics such as repressed womanhood, religion, poverty and others to lyricise, but they struggle to express themselves within a predominantly Muslim community that is not so willing to accept the young rappers’ calls for change.
Writer-director Nabil Ayouch, who based the movie on his own experiences as the founder of a youth cultural centre in the slums of Casablanca (which has since branched out to other areas in the Moroccan city), approaches Casablanca Beats as a flowing hybrid of drama and documentary, which often clashes with the familiar plot structure it ultimately settles for. Many of the film’s actors, including the impressive youths who leave a mark here, are first-time performers, which adds authenticity to semi-improvised scenes of them going back and forth during in-class debates surrounding what can and can’t be discussed in local hip-hop, not to mention how they can address topics such as women’s rights without suffering the wrath of their strict patriarchal lawmakers (some fear that they will be “disappeared” for trying to speak out against the system). There are discussions in this film which themselves inspire debate amongst audiences, such as the overwhelming shadow of religious extremism in the area – the Sidi Moumen neighbourhood is apparently notorious for breeding radical Islamist terrorist cells, which forms a lengthy discussion in this movie – and show that Ayouch, and his bright young ensemble, are wary enough of them to address in a timely and straightforward manner through some strong-worded rap lyrics that are, of themselves, fun to listen to as they develop.
The issue, however, is that most of Casablanca Beats is merely a stylish remixing of a much more familiar song. It adopts the classic “inspirational teacher” formula seen in films like Dead Poets Society (the movie even has its own “O Captain, My Captain” moment towards the end), and more often than not sticks to certain conventions that arise from such a narrative, from the stuffy head of the school who cannot fathom the new teacher’s unorthodox methods, to the personal lives of certain students feeding into their dreams and ambitions (one is fiercely dominated by their older brother, while another lives in a hostile household with an abusive father). Sometimes, the movie will even venture into pure abstract territory, as characters burst into hip-hop and dance fantasy sequences like they’re musical numbers in West Side Story, which are often effective but do pause the movie for a solid few minutes without adding much substance to the rather thin plot. Ultimately, the movie feels a little thin, with barely enough story of its own nature outside the established formula to carry itself to the inevitable big concert climax (because, of course, a movie like this has to have a big concert near the end).
There’s a strong cultural awareness in Casablanca Beats which does put it above many of the lesser “inspirational teacher” movies for opening up discussion over certain youth practises in this part of the world, but that doesn’t entirely change the overall tune of the melody being sung, which is all too familiar to recognise nowadays that ultimately, and ironically for a movie that desires to shake up societal expectations, leave the movie feeling a little bit too thin to properly break away from its traditions.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Casablanca Beats displays a strong cultural awareness of Moroccan youth life which puts writer-director Nabil Ayouch’s semi-improvised film on a higher level of consciousness than lesser movies of its kind, but its blatant sticking to certain formulas and conventions of the “inspirational teacher” category of movies does leave it feeling thinner than it ought to be.