Ismaël El Iraki: “Burning Casablanca is the only film I could make when I got out of the Bataclan alive”

Author of an exciting debut feature set against a backdrop of amorous passion between two wounded in life, the filmmaker looks back on two virtuoso performers Khansa Batma and Ahmed Hammoud

How was born Burning Casablanca, this rowdy love story between two lost souls: Larsen, a rock star fallen because devoured by his addictions and Rajae, a street girl with a strong character?

Ishmael El Iraki: It is a film that I carried for a very long time because inevitably such a UFO is not easy to finance in France and not seen with a very good eye by the Islamist government in Morocco. My previous short film had also been banned there like the feature film by my producer Nabil Ayouch, Much loved. We might as well say that we felt the pain a little and that finding funding on the spot was a real obstacle course. But as far as the creation of this film is concerned, there was something of the order of forest fire, of conflagration. Almost against my will. This film was obviously nourished by everything I love (the music, the actors, the neighborhoods of Casablanca, my grandmother’s house…) but also what was darker in me. This is the only film I could make when I left the Bataclan alive on November 13, 2015! A film about resilience. A love story between two survivors.

These two survivors are embodied by the breathtaking Khansa Batma, a singer who makes her big screen debut here and Ahmed Hammoud that we discovered in 2016 in Mimosas, the way of the Atlas by Oliver Laxe, Grand Prix of the Critics’ Week. Did you write for them ?

The desire to write for Khansa Batma is undoubtedly even at the origin of the project. I knew her on stage. Going to a Khansa Batma concert is an experience, I assure you! She’s mind-blowing. She has incredible courage. She is bigger than life. She writes her own texts. She comes from a Moroccan rock aristocracy. His uncle Larbi was the singer of a legendary group of the seventies, the Nass El Ghiwane, who can be heard in The Last Temptation of Christ and what Scorsese called the Rolling Stones of Africa. Her grandfather was a poet. For me, even though she had never played and if she is not known outside the Arab world, Rajae could only be embodied by her. I was obviously pushed to take someone more experienced and better known but it was non-negotiable as she constitutes the beating heart of this film. The spark that ignites it. So I wrote this role for her. I also stole things from him as I was able to steal things from other actors by talking to them. I also use who they are. Roles are also written from them.

Was this also the case for Ahmed Hammoud?

Yes, but with one major difference: Ahmed was the last guest in this adventure. I have indeed long sought the actor to play Larsen Snake. I saw… 51 people, in Casablanca, in Paris, in Brussels, in London… I thought I was going to go nuts. While looking for the interpreter of a cracked and fragile type, I found myself at each hearing facing two types of actors. One half imitated De Niro and the other half made me Jamel! (laughs) Either nothing I was looking for. Ahmed has arrived at the very end of an exhausting casting day. And the only way he walked into that room and walked swinging his feet forward like he didn’t know where they were going to land was enough for me. A sort of mix between a snake, David Bowie and a cat! I gave his character Marlon Brando’s snakeskin jacket in The man with the snakeskin, the asshole attitude of Lou Reed, the guitar touch of Slash from the Guns N ‘Roses but especially my nightmares and my visions of the Bataclan. And Ahmed immediately understood one essential thing: the fact that his character wears the female attributes of the film. Because his masculinity is fragile, cracked, devoid of aggression. While Rajae wears a lot of masculine elements. A strong woman, anything but a victim, who takes charge of her destiny, who advances history through ruptures

Did that influence your staging?

Totally! We filmed Rajae as John Wayne. Low angle, American shot. And it is also a desire on her part: she does not want to be filmed as a model. She was when she was 17. At 42, she yearns for something else and feasted on being a western icon. While we filmed Ahmed as Marlene Dietrich! (laughs) In a very enlightened way. This inversion of clichés was a desire to stage.

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