Upbeat yet realistic, “Pirates of Sale” is an inspiring documentary about Morocco’s Cirque Shems’y, a big-top outfit with school attached that caters to the country’s underprivileged youth. Co-helmers Merieme Addou and Rosa Rogers follow students as they go through auditions, training, and performance, showing teachers encouraging independent, socially progressive thought among teens never exposed to acrobatics, let alone feminism. The genuinely exciting numbers (think Cirque du Soleil) are handsomely lensed without taking away from the human-interest stories, resulting in an appealing fest item that should also see life in European broadcast.

Sale, a city bordering Rabat on Morocco’s coast, was famed for centuries as a pirate stronghold, but more recently has a reputation for unsafe neighborhoods and poverty. The circus and the National Circus School were founded to offer an alternative narrative to teens too easily sucked into a downward spiral of life on the streets. Run by Frenchman Alain Laeron, Cirque Shems’y holds open auditions, during which instructors look for talent that can be coaxed from kids not used to imagining a life in the performing arts. Especially for young women, who generally leave school by 16 and wait for marriage, the circus holds out the hope of independence through self-realization.

“Pirates of Sale” mostly follows four teens in various stages of artistic development. Hajar, 15, was living on the streets before she auditioned; Ghizlane has a family, but the circus offers a necessary escape from a bleak future with her unsupportive, critical mother. For Abdelali, one of 11 children, and the prodigiously talented Imad, the training they receive under charismatic director Jawad Touinssi and then Guillaume Bertrand pushes them to explore physical and psychological boundaries. The goal is to incorporate life experiences into the shows, not just under the big top (strikingly erected in an old fort on the beach) but also during the citywide festival amusingly named “Djinn Tonic,” in which top students perform solo and group acts throughout city locations.

As to be expected, there are moments of uncertainty, some doling out of tough love, and occasional disappointment. What’s perhaps more surprising is the way the teachers, Western and Moroccan, push their charges to question not only their physical limits but also the societal strictures holding them back. Along with increased self-expression, the teens are encouraged to weigh culturally conservative custom against more liberal Islamic thought, even opening the door to secularism. “This is a school of life before it’s a school of art” becomes an accurate summation of the Shems’y philosophy.

Even after graduation, there’s no guarantee of success, and opportunities are severely limited for those who choose to remain in Morocco. Yet Addou and Rogers nicely capture the hopes of kids largely raised without options, and auds will inevitably root for these talented performers while enjoying their impressive regimens. Rogers, as d.p., demonstrates a skilled hand with attractive images that capture the locale as well as the acts, and Jane Harris’ editing nicely juggles the stories with the semester’s trajectory.

Film Review: ‘Pirates of Sale’

Reviewed at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (competing), Oct. 29, 2014. Running time: <strong>82 MIN</strong>.

  • Production: (Documentary – Morocco-U.K.-France-U.A.E.) A Redbird Prods. production with the participation of Sanad. Produced by Hilary Durman, Merieme Addou.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Merieme Addou, Rosa Rogers. Camera (color), Rogers; editor, Jane Harris; music, Andy Cowton; sound (5.1), Addou, Pip Norton.
  • With: Alain Laeron, Guillaume Bertrand, Abdelali Khobba, Imad Baamar, Ghizlane El Hlimi, Jawad Touinssi. (Arabic, French dialogue)