ALI ZAOUA: PRINCE OF THE STREETS (Nabil Ayouch, 2000)

Born and raised in Paris, Nabil Ayouch, whose father is Moroccan, returned to Morocco, which he had visited many times, to make his second film, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets. This melodrama about chemkaras in Casablanca—street children—has won dozens of prizes at international competitions, including the prestigious Grand Prize at the 2001 Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Because it deals with both the boys’ impoverished lot in life and their dreams, the film has invited comparison with Luis Buñuel’s 1950 Mexican classic Los olvidados (literally, The Forgotten Ones, released in the U.S. as The Young and the Damned), as well as Hector Babenco’s 1980 Pixote, a Brazilian film about a drug-dealing ten-year-old. It has some affinity, too, to Gus Van Sant’s lyrically sad U.S. My Own Private Idaho (1991), about older street kids. It may not be too much of a stretch, either, to relate Ali to postwar films about displaced and orphaned children—for instance, René Clément’s 1952 Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games—literally, Church-Prohibited Games).

But Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets is also in its own category. In it, one of the urchins keeps throwing down a series of steps a little dog that keeps climbing back up to show him rare affection. I identify with this child and think of the dog as the film. While watching the film I kept rejecting it on this basis or that: “Fanciful!” “Too whimsical!” “Sentimental!” “The mise-en-scène: more decorative than expressive!” But, like the dog, the film wouldn’t give up. Eventually the boy falls asleep on the pavement and the dog, persistent, wraps itself cozily around his neck, sleeping along with him. Eventually my dismissals fell by the wayside; by the end of it, with all its seemingly dubious elements, the film had won me over by bringing me to a point of fresh emotional comprehension of these children’s dreams and yearnings. The film at the last beautifully comes together.

At the outset we hear the voice of Ali, a 15-year-old being interviewed for a TV news segment. Why is he living on the street? He overheard his mother say she would sell his eyes. (Translation: His mother, a prostitute, holds nothing dear and would sell anything.) What is his dream? To be a sailor because he loves the sea. (Casablanca is Morocco’s largest port.)

Ali is the leader of a foursome—the others, younger, are Kwita, Omar and Boubker—that has broken apart from Casablanca’s main street gang, led by Dib (Saïd Taghmaoui, excellent, the one professional actor in the young cast,* with the other children being played by current or former chemkaras). The much larger group disputes the splinter group’s independence, and in a confrontation one of their members hurls a stone at Ali, killing him. We later discover that Dib has punished the stone-thrower by disfiguring him, ensuring that his face will be as permanently and deeply scarred as are the faces of many, if not most, of the other boys. (Real scars, these.) In the meantime, Kwita and his two comrades seek to give Ali, whom they idolized, a funeral. Dib compels the stone-thrower to dig the grave.

The film’s one major weakness is the character of an old fisherman who was luring Ali to an island and who befriends the other boys, helping them to bury Ali. The film (or the actor, Mohamed Majd) whitewashes the man’s likely predatory motives. As a result, the character remains totally unmotivated. This error is sufficient to deny the film any claim to greatness. A lesser error, perhaps, is the murky motives given for the boys’ having taken to the streets in the first place, although it’s hinted that Ali was sexually abused by his mother, and another one of the boys was beaten up at home. Since Ali is scarcely at all about Morocco, I do not count it a fault that the film provides no sociological or political context for the huge army of chemkaras on Casablanca’s streets. Others might disagree.

After his death, Ali’s followers absorb his dream. By keeping it alive, in some sense they are keeping their own dreams alive and denying the precariousness of their own existence that Ali’s death makes manifest. One of the boys expresses incomprehension that a tossed stone could thus take out a life. The boy is too young to process the fact that his whole street existence is constantly endangering his fragile life.

One of the boys approaches Ali’s mother to apprise her of her son’s death. She is with a john, and the upshot is an interruption of the intercourse. When she discovers that he has stolen pocket change from an ashtray, she throws the boy out before he can give her the news. This establishes a pattern of continuity in the film—not just coitus interruptus but everything interruptus. In scene after scene, some urgent intention fails to come to fruition. Another example: A sailor promises one of the boys a naval outfit to bury Ali in, but the next day, when the boy comes to pick up the outfit, the sailor renegs on the promise. This principle of (dis)continuity ironically reflects on the (in)capacity of the boys’ dreams to translate into reality.

On the other hand, the film isn’t nihilistic. It retains a wistful hopefulness. At the last, Ali gets the burial the other boys have dreamt for him, and this includes the sailor suit. This strain of optimism expresses not only the hopes that will help keep the boys going but also Ayouch’s own hope for their survival and for the turnaround of their fortunes. Abetted by Krishna Levy’s musical theme, perhaps the most poignant one in film since Nino Rota’s in Federico Fellini’s La strada (1954), the film achieves an extraordinary depth of feeling. Ayouch yearns for the children’s better prospects, and this yearning matches the yearnings that the children themselves express. Also contributing to this emotional resonance are inserted aerial shots where the camera moves up a pier, eventually revealing pier’s end, with the water, denoting open possibility, all around it. A good number of the film’s shots are, frankly, static compositions; but this style helps make the aerial inserts all the more heart-piercing.

The other boys have their own dreams, too. One, the youngest, simply wants to sleep next to one of the others—not for sex, but only for some sense of nurturing warmth. Another fancies as his girlfriend a beautiful girl he spots, whose wallet he in fact steals! (He repeatedly revisits a family photograph there, aching for a family of his own.) On occasion a billboard, other signs and wall graffiti come to squiggly, merry life courtesy of animator Sylvie Leonard. There is also an animated passage encapsulating the dream of Ali’s that the other three boys have adopted in order, in a way, to give it a permanent home. The childishness of these imaginings is counterpoint to the harsh lives these children lead. I am reminded of similar animated inserts in Su Friedrich’s brilliant biographical film about her anti-fascist mother, Ties That Bind (1985), where the childish animation applied to words in printed titles reflects two themes: in Germany, Nazism’s assault on children, innocence, simple humanity; in the U.S., how Friedrich, fully grown, still feels something like a child vis-à-vis this awesome mother of hers, who was politically courageous in Germany, speaking out when others remained silent. I have no idea whether Ayouch is familiar with Friedrich’s film, one of the best American films of the 1980s, but the association of one with the other does Ayouch’s film no harm.

On the dock where the four boys had made their home, there is a hole—“the cave.” Only Ali had been down there; indeed, it is where his three followers dropped his corpse in order to conceal it. To elude the police, however, one night they jump in. Ali, it turns out, was an artist; on one of the cave’s walls is a fantastic mural expressing his dream of getting away into a warmer, happier life. Almost at the last, when one of the animated flights of fancy visually solidifies into Ali’s mural, the film achieves its most powerful effect. The film concludes with a repetition of the opening interview where Ali gives voice to his dream. He is dead but, perhaps, not beyond his dream as a result. The film hints another possibility: Ali’s spirit is now part of that dream.

Abdelhak Zhayra plays Ali, while Mounïm Khab, Mustapha Hansali and Hicham Moussoune play the other three boys, Kwita, Omar and Boubker. (Moussoune wrings the heart dry with antics that owe as much to Boubker’s desire to be a playful little kid as to the boys’ perpetual glue-sniffing.) The script, by Ayouch and Nathalie Saugeon, may seem full of recitations, but the formality not only absorbs the nonprofessionals’ acting inadequacies but also, cumulatively, reflects on the extent to which the characters dream of being out of the lives they’re stuck in. Again: Bear with this film. Things you may take exception to have a way of working out to this film’s advantage. The cinematography by Vincent Mathias, for instance, may initially seem too pretty for words; but his is great color work that helps the film weave its magical spell—a sordid reality utterly transformed by the children’s innocent dreams and yearnings.

Perhaps the film with which Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets has the closest affinity is Dodesukaden (Dodes’Ka-den, 1970), Akira Kurosawa’s first film in color, about Tokyo slum-dwellers—their reality; their dreams.

When asked why Ali disappears so soon from his film, Ayouch has responded thusly: “The goal wasn’t to give him a physical embodiment but to journey with this child’s dream, which becomes the dream of his pals, of all children. It’s the mythical dimension of the character that interested me. . . . [Ali’s] status changes from that of a kid to that of a hero, [and this] hero . . . [then becomes] a symbol.”

Abstraction can sometimes reveal a depth of reality that neither realism nor naturalism can approach.

* Taghmaoui played the Arab boy in the Paris housing project in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 La haine.

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