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"Casablanca Beats"- First Moroccan film to compete for top prize at Cannes since 1962

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Moroccan rap drama "Casablanca Beats" has its premiere in competition at Cannes Film Festival - the first Moroccan movie to compete for the Palme d'Or since 1962.

The movie, by director Nabil Ayouch, follows a group of young people at a cultural center in the poverty-stricken suburbs of Casablanca. They use hip hop to express their feelings about a variety of topics, including religion, families, gender boundaries and terrorism.

Ayouch had established a foundation that sets up cultural centers in Morocco, similar to one which he had attended in the suburbs of Paris and learned how to dance, sing and do theater when he was growing up in the 1970s. "Casablanca Beats" was shot over two years at a cultural center that the director co-founded called Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen, where local youths study arts, including hip hop.

"I observed them for a year. I thought that they are huge talent and then I wanted to know more about themselves, about their personal stories, their background, where those words come from. And it touched me so much that I decided that I would do a film with it," Ayouch told The Associated Press in Cannes.

Ayouch, who directed acclaimed drama "Horses of God" in 2012, didn't want to make a documentary about the young people, so created a fictionalized world around them.

"It's very based on the reality that I observed, but then I began to write a fiction on that reality that is mixing with it, with the parts of a dream, of fantasy that you can see in the singing movement, in the dancing movement also that is telling so much about them, about their everyday life, about big topics that are haunting them and haunting me also," he said.

The stars are all non-professional actors, and include former rapper Anas Basbousi, who plays a teacher trying to encourage his students to throw off cultural norms and live their dreams through hip hop.

When Basbousi grew up in Morocco, there were no cultural or youth centers, so as an adult, he wanted to start a program for young people. He had experienced hip hop through travels to Europe and the U.S., which opened his eyes to hip hop culture and made him think such a movement was needed in Morocco. He joined the cultural center founded by director Ayouch, Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen, to share his experience and knowledge with young people.

"I really love to work with non-professional actors," said Ayouch. "It's a kind of direction that is very different than professional actors, as you can imagine and the most important (thing) for me was to keep their and protect their authenticity."

Basbousi said the students were very happy with the idea taking part in a film, but nervous at the same time.

"They were not professional artists, and they were worried about how they would appear and how they would manage. But the most important thing is that they had a story to tell. They lived through a reality that they shared with us," he said.

"And it's beautiful to see how they're capable to use hip hop as a tool, as a way of expression... on some social, political or religious topics that are part of their everyday life," said Ayouch.

"Casablanca Beats" is showing in competition at Cannes, which runs through 17 July.

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