The Arabic title of Franco-Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s empowering hip-hop fable translates loosely as “rise your voice”, while in France, where the film competed for the Cannes Palme d’Or, it’s known as Haut et fort – “high and loud”. Both monikers perfectly capture the vibrant spirit of this stirring street musical, described by its creator as arising out of “the desire to make a film to give voice to young people”. On one level it’s a patchwork of popular cinematic tropes, combining the strength-through-music themes of films as diverse as 8 Mile and School of Rock with the inspirational classroom formats of everything from Blackboard Jungle to Dead Poets Society. But there’s also a strong whiff of the discursive politics of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, mixed with the accessible rebellion of Jafar Panahi’s Offside or Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang – a heady brew indeed.
Real-life rapper turned teacher Anas Basbousi keeps things close to home as new teacher at an arts centre in the Sidi Moumen district of Casablanca, an area still stained by the spectre of fomenting terrorism. On his first day, Anas boldly spray-paints the wall of his classroom, only to be told that it’s not his classroom – it’s a classroom, one that is used by others who don’t necessarily appreciate his rebellious free-form vibe. Tensions increase when Anas meets his class, played by screen first-timers scouted at Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen (a cultural centre co-founded by Ayouch), whose real lives inspired their fictional on-screen alter egos. As each student takes the floor to show the new teacher what they can do, he dismissively bats aside their efforts, accusing them of failing to use their authentic voices and reducing one misfit to tears for bragging about a life that bears little resemblance to his own.
It’s formulaically clear from the outset where this is going, and no one should be in any doubt that Anas’s harsh words are merely an educational provocation, a wakeup call to the youngsters in whom he divines true potential. Sure enough, they soon start to step up, none more so than the young women whose rhymes tell hidden stories, leading to an outpouring of feminist strength that infuriates a zealous classmate nicknamed “the Imam”. Meanwhile, out-of-school lives start to intrude upon the classroom, with outraged parents banning their offspring from attending, leading to moral battles between Anas and his more stuffy superiors. There’s even a West Side Story-style confrontation with oppressive authority.
Shot over 15 months, which allowed the project to grow organically, Ayouch’s film retains a gritty authenticity despite embracing often cliched dramatic tropes. Like Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava, this down-to-earth tale is not afraid of embracing the magical elements of the musical. Yes, the vérité-style camerawork of Virginie Surdej and Amine Messadi creates “the illusion of a documentary” (there are shades of Nicolas Philibert’s Être et Avoir), convincing us that what we see on screen is “real”. But Khalid Benghrib’s sinewy choreography elevates the action above the everyday, creating fusions of poetry and dance that at times put me in mind of Philippe Lacôte’s hallucinogenic Ivorian prison drama Night of the Kings – a very different film, perhaps, but one that similarly blended elements of documentary and fantasia to thrilling effect.
With original music by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer and performance scenes that take the cast from the classroom to the recording studio, the stage and beyond, Casablanca Beats (which, like Ayouch’s previous films Mektoub, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Horses of God and Razzia, was Morocco’s entry for the Academy Awards) has an infectious energy that pulls us into the ever-changing worlds of its characters. Crucially, it does so in a manner that is both enticing and accessible, giving a platform to the young voices that Ayouch passionately believes are a positive force in increasingly troubled times, offering “a sign that the world is changing”. On this evidence, it’s hard to disagree.