Nabil Ayouch talks Cannes competition film ‘Casablanca Beats’

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French-Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch grew up in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, which he says is “quite violent,” during the late ’70s and early ’80s when hip-hop was emerging in France. In the mid-’90s he moved to Casablanca, where he is now based, and became involved with the sprawling shantytown of Sidi Moumen on that city’s outskirts, a wasteland where extreme poverty and hopelessness have been known to breed Islamic terrorism. That was the subject of his 2012 film “Horses of God,” which screened at Cannes in Un Certain Regard. Ayouch is now back on the Croisette with the more upbeat “Casablanca Beats,” marking the first Moroccan feature to make the Cannes competition cut. It was shot at a cultural center that the director co-founded called Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen, where local youths study arts, including hip hop. Ayouch spoke to Variety about bringing “Beats” to the big screen. 

How did the project originate?

What saved me when I was growing up in Sarcelles was a cultural center where I learned how to tap dance, sing and do theater. Where I watched my first movies: Chaplin, Eisenstein. That’s probably the reason I became a director later on. So I decided to somehow give back what I’d been given when I was young. Even if I did not teach at Les Etoiles I went there a lot to spend time with the youngsters. And one day a former rapper called Anas came and told us he wanted to build a hip hop program called the Positive School of Hip Hop. After a year of observing his students I asked to sit with them to hear their stories, to learn where their words were coming from, and I decided to make a film about them.

How did you structure the narrative?

Listening to their stories was the very first step, but of course it was never in my mind to do a documentary. The work I did mixes a very naturalistic way of filming, but also fantasy: What’s in their head? What are their dreams? How do they express themselves? We tried different things. We did two years of shooting, even though the story in the film lasts only one year.

Talk to me about the musical aspect.

The words, the text of the rap songs were written by the youngsters themselves with Anas. I wanted them to reflect their dreams, traumas and reality. But because this is a musical, the score had to be top-notch. So I called two composers, Mike and Fabien Kourtzer (aka White & Spirit), that I’ve worked with since “Horses of God.” It so happens that they started out in hip hop. I asked them to go back to their first love and build me a score based on the existing words. 

How does it feel to have made the first Moroccan feature film to ever make the cut for the Cannes competition?

I’m of course very happy and — as you can imagine — very proud for the young actors in the film; it’s huge for them. It’s going to be their first time on screen and their first time on the red carpet. I can’t wait for the moment when they see themselves on screen in this big theatre, with all these people. It’s also very moving for me because I see a little bit of me in all of them. This is probably my most autobiographical movie.

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