Monday, April 7, 2014

Film Atlas (Morocco): Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets

Country: Morocco
Title: Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000)
Ali Zaoua opens with the title character, a street urchin in Casablanca, being interviewed by a foreign reporter about the callousness of his mother, a prostitute, and his hard life after running away from home. Ali is the leader of a small group of boys that includes Kwita, Omar and Boubker who’ve split off from a large organized gang run by the Fagin-esque Dib. But despite the title, this is not a film about Ali, who is killed early in the film. It is a film about his friends trying to deal with his death by scraping together enough money for a proper funeral. It is a symbol for them that a better future is possible, even if only after death. Meanwhile, the children interact with Ali’s mother, who is not nearly the monster he depicted her as, in addition to the ‘captain’ of a small fishing boat that was planning to hire Ali and the brutish but not soulless Dib.

Ali Zaoua owes a great debt to the Brazilian masterpiece Pixote, another film that cast children living on the street in roles similar to their own lives. There is an uncomfortable authenticity about their performances, to say nothing of their scars, scabs and evidence of malnutrition and habitual glue-sniffing. This will come off as exploitative to some, as gutsy and proactive to others. I’m in the latter camp... mostly. Partly this is due to the film’s balance and understanding: these kids are sympathetic but not saintly; at times they treat each other horribly, act out unpredictably, behave self-destructively, take advantage of others and commit crimes.  Partly this is due to the sensitive direction and the way the actors come alive through expressing themselves, earning a living and achieving something.  Both the actors and characters have been neglected and abused, but they are still beautiful and real. The same can be said for the locations: dockyards, junkyards, construction sites, alleys. These are places filled with trash, but also texture. They hold unrecorded histories of unremarkable use. Ali Zaoua gives us a view of these off-the-radar corners through the eyes of the homeless and the hiding, where refuse and refuge are intermingled. 

The trickiest thing for me to evaluate about the film is its tone. While Pixote is a cry of pain and outrage, uncompromisingly grim and unsparing, Ali Zaoua is colorful, hopeful, redemptive, even sentimental at times and tinged with magical realism. While the film feels sincere at core, the screenplay is so visibly constructed as to feel manipulative. All of this is to say that I was occasionally troubled by the clash between an honesty in terms of people and places that is not necessarily found in the story and tone. And yet, despite my emotionally conflicted response, I respect the artistic choices the commitment to run with them.

My Favorites:
Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets
A Thousand and One Hands

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