Casablanca Beats is an eye-opening and uplifting film that encourages rap as a revolutionary tool for change in a highly religious, indigent society.
Drawing on director Nabil Ayouch’s own experiences with opening an Arts Centre, Casablanca Beats (Haut et Fort) follows Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper, as he begins teaching at the Positive School of Hip Hop in Casablanca, Morocco. Whilst there, he hopes to educate youth about the liberating power of rap and help them find their voices in a society that may be restricting their creativity. As seen in the opening shots, the film’s landscape is one of impoverishment and a striking contrast to the vibrant and charged energy of the Arts Centre Anas and his students frequent. This unembellished look into the Positive School’s surroundings establishes Casablanca Beats as a film of honesty, and although at times disjointed, it provides a beautiful insight into the beauty of music and the revolutionary power of rap.
Although many of Casablanca Beats’ key events occur in the Arts Centre, the film breaks off into tangents, each one giving insight into a handful of the children’s private lives. Taken into their homes, we can observe more intimately the financial and emotional troubles the students are burdened with. The addition of these private moments, which are mostly laced with solitude and anguish, makes for a compelling backstory to the raps they passionately put together.
The true power of music can be observed in these contrasting moments, as its clear this outlet unites each one of these isolated youths and elevates them to a place where they can be heard. In fact, the most impactful moments of Casablanca Beats happen when the youth are ablaze in debate with one another about politics, religion, feminism, and terrorism. Through these discussions, and their translation to the rap songs they write and perform, they prove that both the youth of today, and the messages they share through art, can have a part to play in revolutionising their society.
Ayouch’s dedication to authenticity is prevalent throughout Casablanca Beats. The students we observe are real attendees of an Arts Centre, appearing as fictionalised versions of themselves. This undoubtedly adds extra veracity to their performances, as they source their passion from their own personal connections to the issues discussed. To complement their honesty, cinematographer Amine Messadi uses a hand-held camera to create an intimate viewing experience. This shooting style helps bridge the gap between feature film and documentary, effortlessly making the camera disappear so the viewer feels like a participatory member of the class discussions and a collaborator in the raps they perform. On a technical level, Casablanca Beats certainly knows what it’s doing.
Nonetheless, Casablanca Beats doesn’t always hit its mark, as there appears to be no place in the film for protagonist Anas. From the synopsis, it’s believed former rapper Anas will arrive at the Positive School of Hip-Hop and help the children find their freedom through rap. However, it feels as though Anas immediately falls to the wayside, with barely a line of dialogue, and instead the youth seem to liberate themselves. His character feels hollow, bar the last ten minutes of the films runtime, and he doesn’t do anything to redeem himself from his first interaction with the children where he insults their raps and makes one of them sob. Casablanca Beats makes feeble attempts to make us empathise with Anis, by showing a few shots of him with a stray dog, or waking up alone in his car, but he still appears as a stark contrast to the other elements of the film that are so deeply rooted in emotion.
Casablanca Beats never shies away from the important topics and addresses them through a celebration of music. Despite being eye-opening at times, and uplifting at others, it’s repeatedly knocked off-key by an undeveloped protagonist who distracts from the films message.