Sultry, twenty-something Malika trawls the grimy side streets of Tangier in skinny jeans and sticky Converse faintly reeking of stale lager. For her, rock and roll is not just music, but - perhaps most of all - an escape.
Going through the barrage of films due to be screened at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival, Traitors – with a bold, scribbled star beside it – was on the top of my ‘to see’ list. Directed and co-produced by American filmmaker Sean Gullette (in association with Karim Debbagh and Audrey Rosenberg), and financed by Hoor Al Qasimi’s Sharjah Art Foundation, it represents a divine union of Eastern moods and sensibilities with punk rock vibes and aesthetics.
With a fast-paced storyline, a Moroccan setting, a cast of alluring and unpredictable characters that could have come straight from the frames of a comic book, and a throbbing, original soundtrack, Traitors is a veritable feast for the senses – a fact which Gullette is not shy to make note of.
“To state the obvious … please watch (it) in the dark, on a big screen, without interruption, and with the sound quite loud!” he told me, prior to viewing the film.
Following the instructions on the tin, I cracked open a bottle of bubbly brew (sadly there were no Casablancas on hand), turned the lights down low, tuned the dials on my stereo towards normally-unexplored territory, and slipped beneath the floral Persian patterns of my bedspread to make for the shores of Morocco.
“Traitors is a veritable feast for the sense
On the outset, Gullette’s film appears to be one centred around the power and allure of rock music, particularly in a North African context; however, as it progresses, it also comes to provide a powerful social commentary on the current generation of Morocco’s youth and their hopes, aspirations, frustrations, dilemmas, and anxieties, evoking at times a mood similar to that prevalent in earlier films such as Fatih Akin’s Head On, Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows about Persian Cats, and more recently – sans rock and roll, albeit – Hicham Lasri’s They are the Dogs, also set in Morocco.
“Cop stops you at a roadblock, takes all your papers away,” belts lead character Malika in the film’s frenetic opener; “give him licence (and) registration – want ‘em back? Now you gotta pay”. Here, there’s no room for censorship, subtlety, or modesty; the harangue goes on, sparing nothing and no one: “son of a general speeding drunk in his Porsche Cayenne / hit a farmer on the highway – push the speed, two hundred and ten!”
As bleak as the picture of Moroccan society painted by Traitors may be, though, the film is not without its powerful messages of hope, compassion, and optimism. A drug kingpin pines for his departed sweetheart, the human side of prostitution is brilliantly portrayed in a cinematic twist, and a coke-snorting hashish dealer is shown not as a mere tool or a failure of society, but rather as a human being with emotions, feelings, and aspirations, confined by her circumstances; and, despite her trying situation and the limits to which she is pushed, Malika never once loses sight of her dreams and ideals, and even risks everything at one point to help a friend in straits even more dire than hers.
Traitors is also laudable in its celebration of the defiance of norms, traditions, and values, as well as externally imposed conditions in the pursuit of freedom and happiness; whether one’s salvation lies in rock and roll, fleeing to faraway lands, or elsewhere is besides the point. “My mother always said, ‘if you are a nail, endure the knocking'”, says a friend to Malika in a moment of crisis. “That’s only half of the proverb”, comes the reply; “the other half says: if you are a hammer, strike’” …
Published in collaboration with Reorient magazine.