When filmmaker Nabil Ayouch discovered that his new movie Casablanca Beats was playing in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he immediately wanted to share the news. It is, after all, the first fully Moroccan film competing at Cannes. But rather than pick up the phone or send an email, he got straight into his car and drove so he could tell the news to his young cast. His destination? Sidi Moumen, the poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of Casablanca where his film is set. When he told these newcomers, they were ecstatic. “It was a very moving moment, as you can imagine.”
Sidi Moumen is a place the French-Moroccan director, 52, knows intimately, having first visited there in 1995 to shoot some documentary footage. Immediately it reminded him of Sarcelles, the “violent” Parisian suburb he grew up in during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In particular, the feeling of being so near to, and yet so far from, the cosmopolitan centre of Paris, which he felt excluded from. It was an experience he shares with the youngsters of Sidi Moumen.
“They never went to the centre of Casablanca,” Ayouch says. It doesn't help that a negative reputation had grown around Sidi Moumen after the 2003 Casablanca bombings. The suicide bombers all came from the area. “Everybody was afraid of this neighbourhood, and nobody wanted to go there. But now, things are slowly changing.”
Some of that can be attributed to Ayouch, who has found himself drawn to Sidi Moumen again and again. After shooting there for the opening scenes of his second film, Ali Zaoua (2000), he returned for 2012’s Horses of God, a fictional account of the suicide bombers, based on the novel of the same name by Mahi Binebine. The film played in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. Struck by this vibrant area and the people he met, he decided to give something back, in the form of cultural centre The Stars of Sidi Moumen, which he founded in 2014 with Binebine.
Again, the inspiration was his own childhood in Sarcelles, and a community youth club he attended called Le Forum des Cholettes. It was, he says, what saved him; the place he was first introduced to the arts, watching films by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Sergei Eisenstein. “It was where I learnt how to speak about the world and to write my own story. And I guess that’s the main reason why I became a director.”
When he set up his first cultural centre in Sidi Moumen, it had a profound impact on the youth of the area. “I couldn’t stop going there every week,” he says. “Girls and boys were there learning every day ... cinema, theatre, music, singing, paintings and so on. It’s a good place – a kind of island.”
There are now five of these centres across Morocco – in Casablanca, Marrakesh, Tangier, Agadir and Fez, all part of his and Binebine's Ali Zaoua Foundation, which they established in 2009.
It was while spending time in Sidi Moumen that Ayouch was inspired to make Casablanca Beats. Moroccan-born former rapper Anas Basbousi approached the Foundation with the idea of building a programme at The Stars of Sidi Moumen called the Positive School of Hip-Hop. As the youngsters began to express themselves through music, Ayouch was captivated. “I heard their personal stories, their personal backgrounds ... and it touched me very, very much.”
It took him back to his youth in the suburbs of Paris, listening to pioneering acts such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. Gradually, this musical form became a movement, spreading from America, via Europe, to the Arab world. The messages were strong, often political.
In Morocco, too, hip-hop became a vital means of communication. “We’re very good rappers in Morocco, and they use hip-hop … not only as an art, but as a way of expression, about politics, about religion, about society,” Ayouch says.
With all this in mind, he began working on Casablanca Beats, building a feature around Anas and the children at The Stars of Sidi Moumen. “This is probably the most autobiographical movie I’ve done,” he says, with a smile. “I can find myself in each one of them.”
Ayouch wrote the script as he listened to the stories of the youngsters that feature in the film, inspired by their backgrounds. He also drew from Basbousi, even using his name for the main character. “He has a kind of natural charisma and magnetism that I think also gave strength to the character. I wanted to build the arrival of this man in this neighbourhood a little bit like a John Ford Western. And he has the character for that.”
In true Western style, Basbousi's arrival in Sidi Moumen is almost shrouded in mystery. “He’s very secretive. You don’t know much about his past. He wants to give what is the best, according to him, to these youngsters. But he’s not a nice guy. He doesn’t want to please them. But very quickly, there is a kind of link that is built between the youngsters and him. And he becomes like a big brother. And so he’s very, very inspirational for them.”
The same might be said for Ayouch, who must be something of a hero to all Morocco now. While the 1962 Moroccan documentary Children of the Sun featured in competition at Cannes, it was directed by filmmaker Jacques Severac. “It was made with the French,” says Ayouch, who is clearly delighted that Casablanca Beats is the first fully Moroccan feature film to compete for the coveted Palme d’Or.
“I’m proud and happy for the country, for Moroccan cinema, for the neighbourhood, for those youngsters, because they gave so much to the film,” he says. I can’t wait to see them in theatre the night of the screening and see the light in their eyes.” These will be the true stars of Sidi Moumen.
Casablanca Beats receives its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, July 15