Nabil Ayouch: “Haut et fort is a political, social and musical film” – Jeune Afrique

In his latest feature film, the Moroccan director looks back on a real experience: the creation of a hip hop school in the underprivileged district of Sidi Moumen, in Casablanca.

High and loud, the eighth feature film by Nabil Ayouch, 52, the best known and most celebrated of Moroccan filmmakers today, bears little resemblance to the previous ones. Transcending genres, he tells how Anas, a glory of rap, is hired by a cultural center to, as part of a “Positive School”, teach hip hop to young people from the underprivileged district of Sidi Moumen, in the suburbs of Casablanca.

A social and artistic experience that we discover on the screen in a form close to a documentary: the cultural center, created by Nabil Ayouch in this district where he has filmed several times, exists, and the adventure of the “Positive School” », With Anas as professor, actually took place. However, a large number of sequences make the film a kind of musical comedy.

First Moroccan fiction in competition for the Palme d’Or, High and loud was well received at the Cannes Film Festival, although it has confused some critics. Now it’s up to the public to discover this doubly original feature film – it deals with an almost indeterminate genre and a subject, rap, little represented on the big screen. An originality that is fiercely defended by Nabil Ayouch, whom we met shortly after the screening on the Croisette.

Jeune Afrique: Your film is difficult to define: documentary? fiction? musical comedy ? Doesn’t this original form constitute a handicap?

Nabil Ayouch : Weird movies, there are a lot of them. Moreover, the selectors of Cannes, who have retained High and loud in competition, just like those from other sections of the festival who wanted to too, were not hampered. The question of form was indeed central to me when I designed it. Ultimately, it is not a documentary, but a fiction, inspired by reality.

And if the boundaries are blurry, if one can wonder what is true and what has been written, it is because that was my goal. I wanted everything to blend together, both the subjects covered and what touches the intimate or the musical aspect. It is a political film, a social film, but also and above all a musical film.

I paid tribute to West Side Story without realizing it

So much so that seeing High and loud, we find him, all things considered, a kinship with West Side Story. Is it right?

Absoutely. West Side Story is a film that I love, a reference. He was a “marker” in the musical, and in particular in the committed musical, by evoking the life of a neighborhood, the clash of two gangs. It may refer to this scene of High and loud, where Islamists and young rappers from Sidi Moumen face each other while dancing, if not like two rival gangs, in any case like two “carriers” of visions of the world that clash.

It hit me when I saw West Side Story recently. But if this film inspired me, it is not directly since, when I saw it again, twenty-five years later, my film was finished. We must therefore rather speak of a desire to pay tribute to this film which I did not realize while shooting …

You say your film is fiction. But how to escape the documentary side when all the characters, in particular the teacher from the “Positive school” and the young people of Sidi Moumen, are all real?

As I said, the film is based on real events and on existing and existing characters. They inspired the story. But I would not have chosen these young people and even less the teacher, Anas, if I had not thought that they had the capacity to interpret a character, to transcend reality.

The charisma, the magnetism of Anas were essential for me to entrust the role to him. As for young people, they had to be able to penetrate fiction, put on the clothes of their characters, sometimes close but sometimes also very distant from what they were in real life.

Moreover, the members of their families on the screen are actors, and the places where they live in the film are not theirs. For example, the real itinerary of Abdou, the very religious young man who appears at one point in the film, is quite the opposite of the one described on the screen.

In the Arab world, rap has phenomenal power

I directed the actors as, in my other films, I direct professionals. But if we think we are close to a documentary, I’m happy about it, because it proves that the film works well.

How important is rap in Morocco?

Huge ! In the Arab world in general, and in Morocco in particular, rap has phenomenal power. It’s been twenty years since this phenomenon began and, the more the years pass, the more it takes importance, the more the rappers are talented and the more they “export”. Moroccan youth have taken it to such an extent that a piece of rap on YouTube can get 10 or 15 million views.

So why can the existence of a rap school cause so many problems, as seen in the movie?

It’s not just a rap school. When, in reality, we created in Sidi Moumen the cultural center that inspired the film, we were perceived as extraterrestrials. The inhabitants of the neighborhood wondered what we were going to do, what we were going to offer their kids, if we were not going to come and impose our idea of ​​culture on them. There was mistrust, resistance, especially at the time of the controversies surrounding the release of my film. Much Loved, in the mid-2010s.

Sidi Moumen is the Sarcelles of my childhood, with sounds, images and codes of the suburbs

Little by little, we were able to occupy our place in the neighborhood, just as social educators made their place in the suburbs where I grew up, thanks to cultural mediation. People realized that we were simply offering a reception structure, a zone of freedom, which they could seize with their ideas, their projects. This does not prevent the approach is not always understood, even today.

The suburb where you grew up and which you have just mentioned is Sarcelles, in France. Can we compare the Sarcelles of your childhood and Sidi Moumen?

Sidi Moumen is the Sarcelles of my childhood, with sounds, images, words, codes from the suburbs. With stigmas, problems – a feeling of disconnection with the outside, the impression of being second-class citizens – quite close, as I could see as early as the 1990s, long before I realized there God’s horses. I had also shot the first images ofAli Zaoua, in 1999.

It has been twenty-five years now that I have seen the district evolve. And the good thing is that he’s really evolving. There is now a physical link, thanks to the tram, with downtown Casablanca. The Sidi Moumen that I knew at the beginning was 80% a huge slum and 20% a solid neighborhood. Today it is the opposite, with the appearance of many low-cost housing. I was able to film both aspects of this changing neighborhood.

I designed my movie like a John Ford western

Rap is originally music from the United States, with protest overtones, which denounces ghettoization and inequalities. In the film, we hear the rappers singing they want “Money, Money”. It is not very revolutionary!

This is just one of the songs in the movie. Others are protesting, take a real look at society, on subjects that raise questions among young people. There, it is a matter of a concern which seems legitimate to me: to want to earn a living.

Perhaps because of its musical comedy aspect, the film gives little context on the characters and the story it tells. Why ?

Because I designed it as a Fordian western. I wanted us to go down in history through the discovery of a lonely hero – Anas in this case -, who arrives in terra incognita, like the one who discovers unknown plains on his horse and sleeps under the stars.

What interests me is the human relationship, the way in which it is gradually reconstructed. In John Ford’s films, we don’t know much about the heroes and, little by little, we go from a rather tense, conflictual situation, to something that evolves, more loose, with the inhabitants, who can be the Indians or any occupants of the place where the character disembarks. This is how I reasoned when imagining my film.

High and loud, by Nabil Ayouch. Released in Morocco on November 3 and in France on November 17, 2021.

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Nabil Ayouch: “Haut et fort is a political, social and musical film” – Jeune Afrique