Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch scoops two top prizes at Cannes Film Festival

Ayouch's film is only the second Moroccan film ever chosen for the official selection at Cannes.
Monday 19/07/2021
A file picture of Moroccan film director Nabil Ayouch in Casablanca. (AFP)
A file picture of Moroccan film director Nabil Ayouch in Casablanca. (AFP)


Nabil Ayouch, the first Moroccan film maker in 60 years to be entered for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or may not have won the coveted prize but has still walked away with two prestigious  awards.

Ayouch’s seventh feature film Casablanca Beats (Haut et Fort) about young people seeking an outlet through hip hop, scooped the Positive Cinema prize while the 52 year-old director and screenwriter himself was presented with the Best Achievement in Cinema award in recognition of his entire career.

Casablanca Beats was directed and written by Ayouch in collaboration with Maryam Touzani. The film is a tribute to Moroccan youth.

It is performed mainly by Anas Basbousi, as well as Ismail Adouab, Meriam Nakkach, Nouhaila Arif, Abdou Basbousi, Zineb Boujemaa, Soufiane Bellali, Mehdi Razzouk, Amina Kannan, Samah Barigou, Maha Menan, Marwa Kniniche, Marouane Bennani and Abderahaman Errahmani.

When Ayouch first heard his film was in the running for the Palme d’Or, he said he could barely believe it.

“It is as if I was a child and I've passed a bakery with a lovely chocolate eclair in the window that I've never been allowed to have and now finally I can," he said.

Ayouch's film is only the second Moroccan film ever chosen for the official selection at Cannes, after Abdelaziz Ramdani's Ames et Rythmes back in 1962.

Reflecting on his depiction of Moroccan youth in Casablanca Beats, he said: "They have so many stories to tell but not the tools to do it."

The film is set in Sidi Moumen, a rundown district made infamous in 2003 after a group of radicalised local youth carried out suicide bombings in the city, killing 33 people.

Ayouch is not new to the neighbourhood.

His 2012 film Horses of God, inspired by a novel by Moroccan painter and author Mahi Binebine, followed two brothers from their childhood up to the day they decide to become suicide bombers. He used non-professional actors from the district.

He had also shot scenes from his indie hit Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets there more than a decade earlier.

In 2014, Ayouch founded the Stars Cultural Centre in the deprived district, offering music, dance and other classes.

The filmmaker said the centre provided the idea and much of the cast  for the fictional Casablanca Beats.

"I attended some workshops and it was really incredible to see them dancing and to listen to their lyrics," he recalled.

"I wanted the whole world to hear what they have to say."

Finding Morocco

The participation of Casablanca Beats at the Cannes festival, which finished at the weekend, has been widely welcomed in Morocco.

That is in sharp contrast to his earlier film Much Loved, a candid take on prostitution in the country that triggered anger online.

"The Much Loved episode isn't totally forgotten, but the wounds have largely healed and my determination is intact," said Ayouch.

"I want my films to travel but my natural audience is the Moroccan public," he added.

"Those who say I ride on the back of others' misery don't watch my films."

The director grew up in the working-class Paris suburb of Sarcelles, falling in love with the films of Charlie Chaplin and Terrence Malick through the cinema club of his local youth centre.

In the late 1990s, at the age of 30, he moved permanently to Morocco and founded his production company.

"It's thanks to cinema that I've been able to go find Morocco,“ he said, “I want to show it in all its generosity, diversity and contradictions."