Acclaimed Moroccan film blends fact, fiction

Nabil Ayouch’s critically-acclaimed “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets” – the fifth of a six-week Arab film series at Williams – is a beautifully conceived, powerfully affecting film that succeeds largely because it is so smartly and boldly made. Always treading the boundary between feature film and documentary, Ayouch manages to enrapture his audience while simultaneously making sure we never become completely comfortable with the material at hand. In turn, he creates a world in which we want to look away a hundred times during the film but cannot, since we are so convinced and compelled by the tragic but bittersweet story he unfolds.

The narrative opens with the voice of a young child who is telling an interviewer about his life on the streets of Casablanca (Morocco’s largest port city). As Ali Zaoua (Abdelhak Zhayra), flanked by a large gang of equally unkempt and abject-looking young children, describes why he ran away from his mother and how he plans to become a sailor one day so he can ride off to his own island, we are instantly startled and uneasy. Thrust so suddenly into this frightening world of Ali’s – where he and these other children, most of whom cannot yet be teenagers, roam the streets and scavenge for food every day – we simply do not know how to react, especially since Ayouch purposely constructs this initial scene like a documentary, making us feel particularly self-conscious and intrusive.

It certainly seems at this point that Ali will be the hero and protagonist, and in a way he clearly is. Yet Ayouch surprises and challenges us immediately, forcing us deeper into the pathos of the film when Ali is killed in the very next scene in a strangely surreal gang war. He and his three closest friends are playing in an abandoned construction site; he is telling Kwita (Mounim Kbab), the most adoring of the three, his plans to leave Casablanca with an affable old sailor named Hamid (Mohamed Majd) who is in need of an apprentice; and then, a large gang – led by the deaf and dumb older bully Dib (Said Taghmaoui, of “Three Kings” fame) – picks a fight with Ali, insults his mother and pelts him in the head with a large stone before he can run away or retaliate. And it all happens so fast, and in such fascinating juxtaposition with the opening scene, that we are completely disoriented and confused, but also completely moved and taken in.

The rest of the plot is ostensibly very simple: Kwita and his two cohorts Boubker (Hicham Moussoune) and Omar (Mustapha Hansali) resolve to give Ali a proper burial – “like that of a prince.” This is, of course, no easy task for three homeless and jobless waifs, so we follow the three of them as they struggle to come up with money and supplies for the burial and track down Ali’s mother (who, it turns out, is no monster and greatly laments her son’s absence) to notify her about her son’s death – something that no pre-teen should ever have to do.

The scenes with Madame Zaoua (Amal Ayouch) and Omar, who is visibly shaken with this major obligation that has befallen him, are some of the most poignant of the film. As the story continues, we see the three grapple with members of Dib’s group, fight among themselves, and move about the city on this sober project to gain for their deceased friend the dignity and majesty they know he deserves.

Effective on so many levels, Ayouch’s award-winning film is consistently jarring, deeply moving and impossible to forget. He manages to strike the perfect balance between sobriety and whimsy, documentary-style objectivity and emotionalism, never allowing his audience a moment to relax, even while he does evoke several smiles and chuckles throughout the film. Much of this success owes to the brilliant performances by the many children in the movie – especially Kbab, Hansali and Moussoune – all of whom are genuine street children without any former acting experience. As we follow Omar, Boubker and Kwita around Casablanca on their mission, into sundry back alleys and empty courtyards, or watch them at their makeshift “home” on the dock, they carry themselves with utmost dignity and charm, and show us that even if we cannot completely relate to them, we can still understand their noble motivations and empathize with them.

In the end, we are left with a splendid tapestry of street life in Casablanca, which we are led to believe is a harshly realistic portrayal (and one explanation for why the film is currently banned in Morocco). From the pier, where the three delineate the rooms of their house with chalk and sleep together under one blanket, to the dark and surreal outdoor courtyard that serves as Dib’s base, to the home of Madame Zaoua, a stunningly vivid picture of the world as it looks to the film’s homeless children is revealed to us, and it is not an easy one to come to grips with. Yet while it remains sobering and oftentimes repulsive throughout the film, Ayouch’s story is ultimately a consummately beautiful one. It is only the skillful cinematic eye of Ayouch that can imbue such a sad and tragic portrait of a life that should have been with a brilliant and poignant vision of dignity, selflessness and maturity that leaves us with a glimmer of hope for what the three protagonists’ lives can still be.