Nabil Ayouch’s Casablanca Beats takes as its template a dozen or so Hollywood dramas and comedies aimed at instilling the positive value of inspirational education. From Dead Poets Society to School of Rock, the pitch and the arc are fairly similar even as circumstances change. Here, however, Ayouch’s interest is more focused on the kids than on the teacher.
Positive School is the name of an arts centre in the heart of Sidi Moumen, a suburb of the Moroccan city of Casablanca. It’s hard to find. New teacher Anas (Anas Basbousi) drives down a labyrinth of small streets before coming across it. Here, Anas finds a classroom of students from different backgrounds united in their love of hip-hop but an administration wary of rocking the boat and deeply religious community for whom individual expression in dress, music and dance – especially for their young women – is a total anathema. Before you can say “O Captain! My Captain!” lives are being changed and the music is banging.
In fact, Anas is an enigmatic figure. We don’t know much about him other than he was once a rap star. Now he’s sleeping in his car but we never find out why. At first, he doesn’t even appear to be that great a teacher, ripping into his charges with the fervour of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. But the tough love is part of making them feel the value and seriousness of what they are doing. The point he comes back to again and again is the sincerity of what they are saying. For him rap has to be a true expression and not some act of cultural mimicry, or boo-hoo poetry.
The kids themselves are played by non-professionals and the film is at its best when they take centre stage, either performing their increasingly confident music or discussing issues such as religious tolerance, fanaticism or the treatment of women. These discussions feel real and urgent. The freedom of the music they adore and the constraints under which they have to live and perform it is painful, but also exhilarating when they finally get an opportunity to break free. We also see a little of their home lives. One girl lives with an overprotective brother: another is in an orphanage, the cockiest young lad has a violent father ruling at home. Hip hop for them is both an escape and an identity.
And yet, despite their problems at home and within their community, Anas inspires the kids to write and perform and soon they are the ones organising a concert and helping to publicise it and taking the project out of his control. Casablanca Beats‘ music itself is excellent, with some mean beatboxing and dance sequences. None of the problems are resolved. There’s no revolutionary moment of success in which the meanies are ousted and hip-hop declared godly. Music is like education in this: it’s all about the movement, not the destination.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty