With his feature debut, director Ismaël El Iraki presents a raucous, rock-and-roll-fueled tour through the underworld of Casablanca. Shot on 35mm and featuring a number of live performances, “Zanka Contact,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and screens Thursday at MIA market in Rome, is a musical romp that mixes gangster film swagger with a marked sense of place.
“I’m a child of the 90s,” El Iraki tells Variety. “I was breastfed on Tarantino and Sergio Leone. Those films mixed with my Moroccan experience. Casablanca is a very violent city, and our project was to capture that spirit. It has a vulgar street poetry that can swing between laughter and violence from one sentence to the next. When I saw that in Tarantino movies, I said, hey, these are the guys from my neighborhood!”
The film, which the director describes as “a 70s subversive genre movie seen through a 90s lens,” follows a drug-addled ex-rockstar who falls in with a musically gifted woman of the night, and builds on those genre films standards toward something profound.
“I find it fascinating to start with an archetype – the strung-out has-been rockstar, the hooker with the heart of gold – and then stray away from the idea and move toward the real person,” the filmmaker explains. “The only thing that’s real in any film is emotion. If we can deliver that, it doesn’t matter that you started from an archetype. The point is to turn it inside out and reach the beating heart within.”
That emotional undercurrent stems from the film’s nuanced and acute understanding of trauma. Both washed up Larsen (Ahmed Hammoud) and soulful Rajae (Khansa Batma) are scarred by past violence, developing hard personas to ward off the outside world and to keep their own demons at bay.
For El Iraki, such thematic concerns became paramount as he developed his first feature. “I wrote everything close to me into the script – the places I love, the people I love, and the things I love,” he says. “Because I put everything that was part of me, like that whole Moroccan 70s rock scene, the metal concerts I went to as a teenager, I also had to include the darkness.”
Writing the film, the director built from his own experience of PTSD after surviving the Nov. 13 attack at Paris’ Bataclan. “I tried to write a movie specifically about a terrorist attack,” he explains. “But people don’t see it the way I do. What’s more interesting is the time it takes to heal. All the stuff removed from the sensational aspects of the event. The time it takes, the sheer amount of trying and trying again.”
“There’s this realization that you’re not well,” El Iraki continues. “Okay, you made it out alive, but you’re not really alive. You’re still in what I could call the realm of the dead… After a long while I finally got the guts to start talking, to go and get treated. I started this very specific PTSD therapy.”
“The people I met there were scarred just like I was. They were rape victims, military veterans coming back from Afghanistan, a doctor who had lived through the Lebanon war 35 years ago, who was still coming back. I saw that we could share something, because it’s a disease. It’s an infectious disease that’s given to you by violence.”
“You can recognize it in others, this thing that’s embedded in your eyes and heart,” he adds. “It’s really physical, and you can recognize it in other people, which means that you can help. That’s what made me want to write about it. The two characters [in the film] recognize that in each other.”
Fueling those experiences into a livewire genre outing – a throwback that relies on optical effects and old school methods – the filmmaker hoped to graft that volatility into the project’s very form.
“The idea of the movie was to have it burn,” he says. “The two characters meet at the beginning and light a fuse, so the movie’s going to burn – and at some point so too will the film. It burns up in the canister.”
“But the movie doesn’t end in a big blaze of fire,” he adds. “It ends in the ashes, because from the ashes you can rebuild.”