In Nabil Ayouch’s rousing, Arabic-language drama, two teenage boys begin singing about sex and fame, as their gleeful classmates, many of them wild-haired girls, leap around. “We want money”, chant the kids, who are all played by non-professionals from hard-scrabble suburb, Sidi Moumen. The young cast deserve to become filthy rich (the song Drahem is already on Spotify and I beg you to check it out; it’s even cuter than Turning Red’s boy-band-ballad pastiche, Nobody Like U). The film itself, though, is chasing a different kind of success.
The story’s set in an arts centre and the central character is rapper Anas (real-life Moroccan musician, Anas Basbousi aka Bawss), whose task is to introduce adolescents to “positive” hip-hop.
Good teachers often make for bad movies. And unworldly Anas does, at times, conform to the inspirational teacher type spoofed in Derry Girls. Remember Ms De Brun, who lived in an empty flat and said “everything I own I can fit into a suitcase” (right before taking a swanky job so she could beat “crippling” mortgage rates)? Well, Anas is even more spartan. He lives in his car.
For the most part, however, the semi-improvised script avoids cliches. Anas respects boundaries. He rarely makes speeches. And, unlike the white pedagogues in, say, Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society, he zones in on local issues. For so many reasons, suicide bombers weren’t on Mr Keating’s syllabus.
A shot of Anas on a roof, ruefully observing hundreds of men kneeling for prayers, is brilliantly and quietly provocative. Anas is increasingly viewed by adult members of the community as a Pied Piper, because he encourages girls and boys to interact. Let’s just say, Casablanca Beats has a fresh take on Pied Pipers.
Much is conveyed, too, by the fashions the youngsters adopt. The boys who sing Drahem, for example, are positively flamboyant. Ismail (Ismail Adouab) has a hair-do like De La Soul’s Posdnuos, circa 1989. Meanwhile Mehdi (Mehdi Razzouk), in owlish glasses, resembles a preppy Parisian catwalk model. Parts of Sidi Moumen are practically pre-industrial (in certain night-time scenes, the only light is provided by glowing mobile phones). But Ayouch refuses to rub our noses in such deprivation. We don’t feel like poverty tourists, for the simple reason that these characters aren’t defined by what they lack, but what they have, which is style and talent to spare.
The acting, by the way, is awesome. When Anas criticises his charges, their distress is red-raw. In this movie, boys cry and it’s infectious.
The arts centre is a real-life institution that Ayouch founded in 2014. Basbousi has worked there for years. The pair know what they’re talking about and it’s a pure pleasure to watch and learn.
In cinemas from April 29