“In Casablanca, in those neighbourhoods, there are a lot of stories to tell,” says Moroccan director Kamal Lazraq.
The director is referring to the poorer suburbs of the city, where the characters in his feature debut Hounds scurry around in dire straits.
Playing in the Un Certain Regards strand of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Hounds is a crime story where hapless low-lifes are trapped by their own circumstances and stupidity.
Standing on the UniFrance terrace in Cannes, Lazraq reflects on the film and as we speak its stars Abdellatif Masstouri and Ayoub Elaid are nearby getting their photos taken. Neither are actors by trade, as the director likes to work with non-professionals.
Lazraq credits his casting director Amine Louadni for discovering them both. “He’s very clever. He said, ‘In Morocco, we are lucky. There are actors everywhere – in the streets.’ And he has a file with a lot of people, with strong faces. He just takes photos or small videos of them.”
The moment that Lazraq saw Elaid’s image, he was drawn in. The young man reminded him of the Italian actor Franco Citti in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accatone (1961). When they met for coffee, Elaid kept saying to him “I’m not an actor”, but Lazraq has made it his business to mould inexperienced performers.
After studying at La Femis in Paris, the director began working this way on his graduation short Drari and continued to do so on 2013’s Moul Lkelb (The Man With a Dog).
Set in the world of underground dogfighting, the short film takes place over one night and certainly planted the seeds for Hounds. During the casting for The Man With a Dog, he met a father and son.
“They were coming from the very poor neighbourhoods of Casablanca. And they told me, ‘We need to survive. Sometimes we have to accept small jobs that go very wrong but we have no choice.’ A few years later, when I finished the script, one of them is in jail and the other is in Russia – I don’t know how he escaped there!”
In Hounds, Masstouri’s fifty-something Hassan is instructed to kidnap a rival gangster’s associate, an abduction that goes drastically wrong when the man suffocates and dies. Worse still, Hassan brings his son Issam (Elaid) with him. The young man knows he shouldn’t get involved, but feels compels to obey his father.
“It’s something very present in Morocco – we can’t contest the authority of the father,” says Lazraq. As the two dispose of the corpse, it’s a journey that becomes increasingly fraught. “For me, the film is like a sort of nightmare and the father is [obsessed] trying to solve the problem without thinking about the consequences,” says Lazraq.
Inspired by British director Ken Loach, who is famed for drawing strong performances from non-professionals, Lazraq says “I let them be free to bring their experiences.”
One of the actors, who the director doesn’t name, had been involved in a real abduction. A lot of his cast, he says, were similar to the underworld characters we see in Hounds. “They’ve spent a lot of years in jail and done terrible things, but they remain very human.”
Having honed this technique on his shorts, he seems delighted by the outcome of Hounds. The performances feel authentic. Glancing over as Masstouri gets his photo taken, it's evident that he’s blessed with a face that feels lived in. “I like the results and as a Moroccan director, I think it’s the best way to explore the potential of Moroccan society and Moroccan talent. It’s the right way for me to tell the stories in Morocco.
It’s not like in the US or France, with thousands of actors. We don’t have a lot of actors. And we always see the same faces on the screen. When you go to the streets, we see interesting faces. For me, it’s the right way to work.”
What impresses about Hounds is how fresh it feels, despite treading in some territory that feels familiar. Although the dogfighting element might recall Alejandro G. Inarritu’s startling debut Amores Perros (2000), Lazraq had other films in mind.
For the father-son dynamic, he drew from Vittorio De Sica‘s Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thieves (1948), while the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, which showed in Cannes six years ago, also served as inspiration. Similarly, that film took place over a short time period, a nightmarish trawl through a nocturnal New York landscape.
The farcical black humour of the Coen Brothers’ debut Blood Simple (1984) and the Minnesota-set Fargo (1996) – with dead bodies disposed of in woodchippers – might also have made an impression on the director.
Lazraq also references the Greek myth of Sisyphus, doomed to repeatedly push a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down again as he nears the top.
“For me, there is an existentialist point in the film,” says Lazraq. “They are trying to find a solution and everything is going wrong. For me, the humour is coming from the absurd.”
Unsurprisingly, with so much of the film shot at night, it got under the director’s skin. “It was very difficult,” he says. “When you go to bed at 8am, you don’t sleep. But after two or three weeks of shooting, it was like a dream. The actors were very tired, the crew was tired. We didn’t know where we were.
“When I finished the shooting, I slept for two days. 'What have I done? Is there a film?'” He confirms it was only in the editing phase that he began to find the film.
With the picture now competing for Best First Feature at Cannes, it's safe to say the Hounds director has well and truly found his feet.