First-time actor Zakaria Inan is the resilient, unforgettable young tennis player at the heart of Moroccan director Ismael Ferroukhi's third feature, Mica, which is competing at El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt this week.
The film starts with a bunch of boys wrestling in the middle of a village market and ends on a tennis court in Casablanca. In both the scenes, the actor’s loneliness is palpable, but his eyes are brimming with decision.
Mica, a nickname he picked up selling plastic bags, is shuttled out of his village to work as a khaddam, or handyman, at the affluent Casablanca home of the Slimani family.
He grows curious about the new life he is suddenly witness to after Hajj, the family friend who takes him in, takes Mica to perform assorted jobs at the tennis club, owned by the Slimani family and frequented by the Moroccan elite.
We see Mica being bullied, first for being small then for being poor, and so he makes his mind up to flee.
"Mica is like a lot of other children we meet in France or Belgium that have been smuggled ... we can now have an idea how they lived before," Lamia Chraibi of La Prod, the film's producer, tells The National. "What's interesting about this film is that it is not a success story, it's about choice," she says.
The film offers viewers a particular side of Casablanca, which for many Moroccans has become a gateway to Europe. To Mica, it seems as though there is only one way to ease his anguish: pay a smuggler and set out to sea.
On working with Inan, Chraibi says: “We met only 10 days before they started shooting ... He’s magic.”
The casting process was arduous, she says. Since tennis is mostly a sport for the rich, none of the kids who auditioned were a good fit.
Inan’s father actually works at the tennis club, so he was ideal for the role. “He had hunger in his eyes, and you need this to be a champion.”
Through Mica, Farroukhi reminds viewers that changing locale may not necessarily change one's life for the better, so to speak. However, the nuances of class and structural inequality are overlooked, which is perhaps one of the film's main shortcomings.
At one point, it feels as though the only way for Mica to escape the harsh reality he was born into is to seek the attention of tennis champion-turned-coach Sophia (played by French actress Sabrina Ouazani), a woman who is far removed from Mica’s day to day reality.
It’s not that their chance relationship is unconvincing, it’s that the notion of being offered a “chance” is strictly linked to someone with power and money, and the film fails to explore the complexities such dynamics breed.
The film drags a little towards the second half; the expected turns in the narrative fail to carry the story forward, and at one point we find ourselves quite literally going in circles between Mica’s two choices: tennis and the sea.
Throughout the film, Eva Sehet’s lens captures generous shots of Casablanca’s ocean and sky, and of birds fluttering freely, a state Mica is constantly longing for.
Her compositions capture Mica against giant waves and towering steel containers that frame how small he is, caught up in a world that is far bigger than his dreams.
Another highlight is the film’s magnetic score, a skilful sonic journey by duo Hang Massive, which, despite the occasional narrative lag, keeps you watching until the end.
Mica screens on Friday, October 30 as part of El Gouna Film Festival, which runs until Saturday, October 31