Casablanca Beats: Exuberating Moroccan Hip-Hop Docudrama (Cannes Film Fest 2021)

Casablanca Beats: Moroccan Hip-Hop Docu-Drama

An exuberant mixture of street musical, inspirational-teacher drama and powerful advocacy.

Casablanca Beats
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s heartfelt and fascinating hip-hop street-musical, Casablanca Beats, represents his third time in Cannes but first time in competition.

The specific setting, and the music of embattled Casablanca arts center, where local adolescents bond, render Ayouch’s film sense of real-life resistance emerging in real time.

It demonstrates, among other things, how music could build–under the right conditions–into a social movement.

Ayouch is telling the story of the Casablanca neighborhood of Sidi Moumen, which he, a longtime city resident, knows well.

The film was shot in fits and starts over the course of two years. Ayouch’s agenda is to passionately support institutions like this one, and teachers like Anas Basbousi  (a rapper-turned-teacher in real life).

Relying on non-professional cast and real-world setting, Casablanca Beats is an entrancing mix of documentary and fiction, reflected in the style of Virginie Surdej and Amine Messadi’s photography.

The film begins with the arrival in Casablanca of newly recruited hip-hop teacher Asan.

There are snippets of Asan’s backstory–one kids mentions, “those who can’t, teach” logic, referring to Asan’s now defunct music career.

However, his renegade but fair attitude is quickly established by painting a graffiti mural across one of the classroom’s walls.

He runs afoul of his new employers: the tired female administrators given the thankless task of fielding angry parents, who are convinced the center is a hotbed of loose morals and corruption.

While he listens impassively to his new class’s first attempts to write rap, he then quickly but methodically dissects them mercilessly.

The students exchange uneasy glances, but then work harder to impress him. For example, two girls team up as a duo and write an overtly feminist rap.

Interspersed between the docu-style classroom segments, recording sessions and performances, are digressions following some of the students back to their home life for a time.

There is some terrific music (original compositions were written by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer), and a brief but exciting standing-up-to-authority musical number.

Ayouch shaped the loose narrative while the shoot was ongoing. But at times, while that approach adds spontaneity and verve, it also subtracts in terms of emotional arcs and dramatic clarity.

Some of the stories feel strangely stunted, with their climaxes and complications occurring offscreen. One of the girls is castigated by her older brother for wanting to perform in public. A young man gains the nickname “The Imam” for the irritating piety and judgmental attitude he displays toward his female classmates in religious etiquette.

But these are minor shortcomings, comparing to the overall success and impact of this one-of-a-kind feature.