“Casablanca Beats” (“Haut et fort”) premiered at Cannes in 2021, where it was the first Moroccan film in 40 years to be nominated for the Palme d’Or, and was Morocco’s submission to the 2022 Academy Awards category for Best International Feature film.
Written, directed, and produced by Nabil Ayouch, a leading figure in the Moroccan film industry, the hip-hop musical opens with rapper turned teacher Anas (playing himself) driving out of Casablanca city, as highways and skyscrapers are replaced with dirt roads, horses and shacks at the centre of which lies the town of Sidi Moumen and the youth cultural centre where Anas is to work with aspiring young rappers.
Following Julio García Espinosa’s idea of an Imperfect Cinema, the film’s authenticity is driven by its blurring of documentary and fiction, creating a sense of urgency and dialogue with the audience.
Populated by first-time actors drawn from the real-life cultural centre, Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen, which Ayouch founded with novelist Mahi Binebine, “Casablanca Beats” was inspired by Anas’ Positive School of Hip Hop workshops and shot on location in the cultural centre.
Its narrative centres on wayward youth inspired by an idealistic teacher who uses unconventional methods to tap into their creativity, a familiar formula that has endured in popularity from “Blackboard Jungle” (Brooks, 1955) and “To Sir With Love” (Clavell, 1967), to “Dead Poets Society” (Weir, 1989), “Sister Act 2” (Duke, 1993) and “Dangerous Minds” (Smith, 1995). But “Casablanca Beats,” while indulging in cliché, brings an experimental touch to the subgenre through cine-verité handheld camerawork, performance art, and improvisational conversations where young women’s voices are given centre space.
In this it draws on the unforced naturalism of “Half Nelson” (Fleck, 2006) and “Entre Les Murs” (“The Class”) (Cantet, 2008), using non-professional actors, observational camerawork, and leisurely pacing to produce a cinema of lucidity, exposing both overt economic, geopolitical and cultural tensions, as well as covert authoritarianism – here signified by the open hostility Anas experiences with the centre’s administration and the constant critiques of women’s appearance, whether from religious conservatism or mediatised beauty ideals.
“Casablanca Beats'” focus on national issues spotlights divisions and commonalities among the group of young artists which signal the heterogeneity of the region, as conveyed both by the linguistic mix of Arabic, French, Berber, and English, as well as the film’s multiracial Moroccan cast.
Anas begins by telling his students about the history of hip hop, linking African-American musical forms to legacies of slavery and rebellion, which he in turn links to the Arab Spring, with Tunisia as a leading light.
Recalling Manele Labidi’s Tunisian drama “Un divan à Tunis” (“Arab Blues”) (2019), the film generates a partial survey of Moroccan society through the struggles, ambitions, and relationships of the youth it features. Throughout “Casablanca Beats,” issues of religion, taboos, structural inequality, social media, and personal value systems all come into question.
In true Third Cinema tradition, Anas’ workshops activate a certain revolutionary consciousness (mirrored in the film’s form), reminding the youth of the power of their personhood and their voice.
“Casablanca Beats'” bright, colour-saturated imagery gives the film a warm sensuality capturing the tropical heat of the city as well as its positive potentialities. Ayouch’s aesthetics are evocative of “City of God” (“Cidade de Deus”) (Lund & Meirelles, 2002) in the vibrancy and intimacy they bring to characters’ homes as places of comfort and renewal, as well as deprivation and violence. Seen through the eyes of the young people who live there, the shanty town becomes symbolic of both entrapment and coercion, as well as escape through exuberant creativity.
This albeit sanitised version, where domestic abuse, sexual violence, terrorism, and unemployment are rife but alluded to rather than seen, is a necessary generic convention that simultaneously challenges convention. Through Ayouch’s lens, the Casablanca slum – as with New York’s ghettoes in “West Side Story” (Robbins & Wise, 1961), referenced in “Casablanca Beats’” dance-off with fundamentalists – is reimagined as a place of hope and beauty rather than stereotypically abject despair. This is itself an act of resistance that rejects the idealization of the wealthy urban centre and the demonization of its impoverished outskirts, mainly populated by the city’s brown and Black communities.
In contrast to much Franco-Maghrebi cinema, “Casablanca Beats” presents a cast of predominately African descent, focused on reshaping their city rather than looking to Europe or America. In this there are similarities with Lula Ali Ismaïl’s “Dhalinyaro” (“Youth”) (2017), which, against a backdrop of striking colour and social contrast, foregrounds the stories of young multi-ethnic women coming of age in Djibouti city, balancing familial and social expectations with a profound desire to assert their autonomy and create change at home.
Several scenes in “Casablanca Beats” feature characters reclaiming the strategically elevated position of the kasbah’s roof networks. Following a conversation about social, personal, and political limits, where one young woman notes the necessity of staying within permitted limitations for fear of complete censorship, prison, or worse (much to her male peers’ amusement), a dancer performs on a rooftop, using the wires of clotheslines to restrict and define her movement, until she finally reaches for one we cannot see.
Feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed (2016) notes the difficulty of naming injustice when “the walls you come up against don’t even appear to others.”
“Casablanca Beats” consistently reinforces the invisible constraints placed on women in a patriarchal system through discussions of the misogynistic attitudes and behaviours their male counterparts insist don’t exist (or ultimately hold women culpable for). While restrictions are also placed on men, it is fear of women’s freedom that leads to the film’s tense climax.
The final tableau of the group performing on the cultural centre’s rooftop, as their teacher looks up from the street, signals the start of a new beginning. While the film has many cathartic episodes, this impromptu gathering asserts the power of the next generation to produce a sustainable model of collaborative leadership.
Yet, it is also a rock n’ roll moment, evocative of The Beatles’ legendary final concert, and their hit song “Money (That’s What I Want)” is reimagined in one of the film’s catchiest tracks “Drahem” (Money).
From Diam’s biopic “Salam” (Benyamina & Cissé, 2022) to Laetitia Kerfa in TV drama “Validé” (Canal+, 2021), recent years have seen an upsurge in hip hop screen narratives centralising female creatives and in “Casablanca Beats” female rappers are seen writing, crafting and spitting bars alongside their male peers.
Dance scenes led by Black women accompanied by drums or diegetic sound emphasise collective empowerment, collaborative interdependence, and communal resilience via ancient African cultural forms of movement, music, storytelling, spiritualism, and resistance.
As such, indigenous feminism informs the film’s central message and produces some of its most memorable moments. Indeed, while “Casablanca Beats’” formulaic base and ensemble cast leads to a certain reduction in characterisation and plot, it is the moments of performance when young people light up the screen through energetic, intellectually stimulating, and impassioned displays of dance, self-expression, and rap which make the film a captivating watch.
Dr. Zélie Asava is a Screen Studies academic. She is the author of Mixed Race Cinemas: Multiracial Dynamics in America and France and The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities on Irish Film and Television, and co-editor of a special issue of the Journal of Scandinavian Cinema.