ALI ZAOUA, PRINCE OF THE STREETS (Nabil Ayouch; Morocco/ Tunisia/ France/ Belgium; 2000)
[deleted after the 4th edition]
The “1001 Movies” guide states that this film, about three street children who are trying to bury a dead friend in a manner befitting his fantasy of being a sailor, is “powerful” due to the “deft juggling of [the] character’s harsh lives with both humour and unabashed sentimentality.” In fact, it seems the director, Nabil Ayouch, “wants to break your heart, is determined to do so, and succeeds.”
If heart-break is to occur, it would not be due to a harsh depiction of pre-teen homelessness in Morocco. It’s not completely sanitised, there’s still a layer of grime involved – sniffing glue to fend off hunger, suggestions of child prostitution and rape – but it’s easy to forget the dire world these characters are supposed to inhabit. Somehow, poverty and the struggle to survive seem to melt away from the story, leaving a more romantic residue based around the bonds of friendship forged between these boys. And perhaps that is where this heart-break is supposed to come from – the resilience and tenacity of friendship, all tied up neatly at the end of the film when the three boys all sing together in memory of their deceased comrade.
But why such a near-dirtless, ‘unabashed sentimental’ vision of homelessness in Casablanca? Was the potential for truly harsh ‘realities’ subdued because of funding from European sources, thus shaping a ‘cleaner’ story for fear of losing important financial backing? Compared to the bleakness and violence of Pixote, a Brazilian street-child film made 19 years earlier, this film has a remarkably saccharine flavour. It’s well-lit and brightly coloured, replete with big primary-coloured childlike animations of Ali’s dreams to cunningly tug at susceptible hearts. It’s interesting that animation was chosen as the vehicle for depicting a street child’s dream of escape – it provides a simplistic short-cut to convey the yearning for other places. Ayouch here has chosen to opt for a more pedestrian path to depicting the inner world of fantasies, blatantly painting these dreams of escape directly into the film, rather than relying on a potentially more complex approach where the desire to escape remains an inner world. Animation appears to be the only solution Ayouch could come up with to show the dreams of the deceased Ali entering into the minds of his friends.
In the same year, and not too far geographically, Pedro Costa was making In Vanda’s Room in Portugal. This film is a near-total interior film, compared with the bright streets of Casablanca, and the sense of poverty strikes a markedly different chord. However, for some odd reason, I can’t help wondering what Ali Zaoua might have been like if it had been shot with a rhythm and visual style similar to Costa’s. Hmmm.