The chicos normales are youths in the Jaama Mezwak district of the Northern Moroccan city of Tétouan in this film by the Spanish documentarist Daniel Hernández. This is the director’s first feature after 30 documentaries and is funded by the Catalan broadcaster Televisió de Catalunya (TVC). I was intrigued by the promise of a Spanish perspective on Muslim youth in the current political climate and wondered whether there would be similarities with British films like Yasmin (UK 2004).
The setting for the film is the district which was the home of several of the Madrid bombers in 2004. I’ve only been a tourist in Morocco, but I do know two important facts about the country. One is its proximity to Spain, and therefore the EU, via both the short sea crossing from Tangier across the Straits of Gibraltar and the rather longer and more hazardous routes further across the Mediterranean and from the West coast to the Canaries. The second is the pressure to travel to Europe, prompted by the growth of the Moroccan population and the inability of the local economy to find jobs for young people.
The film is a form of neorealist fiction based on the day-to-day lives of two young men, Youseff and El-Khader, and Rabia a female law graduate. All the actors are locals, the credits list Youseff as playing ‘himself’ and the other actors also use their own names for their characters. The narrative begins with a funeral and flashes back to explain what happened during the previous months. Like Yasmin, the events of the story came from discussions with the actors and other members of the local community themselves although the script was written by Daniel Hernández and Gabi Martínez. The credits list a translator/interpreter and I was impressed by the seeming authenticity of the whole enterprise. It could have been a Moroccan film for me (though since I’ve only seen a couple of other Moroccan films, that might not mean much).
Youseff is the ‘bad boy’. He has been stabbed in the leg in a fight and has allowed the wound to become infected, consequently he needs an operation and is on crutches. He has failed to learn to read and becomes easily frustrated when attempting to earn a living with a market stall. Youseff wants money quickly – for the operation to heal his leg and to spend with his friends. The most lucrative form of ’employment’ is offered by the local drug smugglers.
El-Khader is a more sympathetic character, but in a sense equally lost. He wants most of all to become a performer and attempts to engage in street theatre, but it doesn’t pay and his friends and relatives mock him for not having a more ‘masculine’ interest. He begins to fret about how he can support his mother and his younger siblings. Taking the illegal route to Europe seems the only answer.
Rabia has decided that she wants to become a fashion designer rather than use her law degree. She manages to join a co-operative and get started as a seamstress on local commissions whilst she plans her future, but she is also struggling to decide how to be a modern young woman in Morocco. Her boyfriend has gone to Austria and doesn’t look like returning soon. She has a dalliance in an online chatroom and an interesting encounter with a young (and rather arrogant) religious teacher. She is not wearing a headscarf in the first part of the film and says that she will wear one when she deems it appropriate rather than be forced to wear it by the pressure of patriarchal society. Later we see her carefully putting on a headscarf, carefully covering her hair but otherwise presenting her very beautiful face to the world – it isn’t clear why she is now doing this.
At first, I found the film difficult to watch. Shot on digital, I found the scenes ‘cold’ and brash. I wasn’t sure if this was a fiction or a documentary and I missed the familiar cues as to which were the central characters and how the narrative was developing, so although I was learning something about the community, I wasn’t being drawn into a story. After about 20 minutes or so, I finally found my way into the narrative and from then on I enjoyed the film.
What is most interesting from a UK (and especially Bradford) perspective is that instead of focusing on what may propel Muslim youth towards an engagement with terrorism, the three main characters have their own concerns and the ‘fundamentalists’ are generally marginalised and only mentioned because they used to meet in a similar location “in another street” to the one in which Rabia sets up her sewing business. The youth are generally not interested in politics except in the case of Palestine, where they recognise that resistance to occupation is justified and should be supported. Youssef’s older brother was sent abroad by the fundamentalists and now he is missing assumed dead since he has not returned (or been listed as being in an American gaol). Yousseff continues to look for news and he has help from older people in the community – another difference to representations of British Muslim communities is that there is little suggestion of a generation gap in attitudes (although the youth are not surprisingly sometimes more aggressive). The future which faces the three Moroccan youths is not rosy and their chances of success are not high but at least this film has offered us a glimpse of what those problems might be and has presented us with recognisable characters in a human drama – even if the events may be too low key and predictable for fans of mainstream cinema.
I hope the film gets a release – or a showing on UK television. I think it would work on BBC4 or Channel 4. It is an interesting venture to put alongside the work of British directors like Michael Winterbottom who have been willing to go to Muslim countries to attempt to make films about issues that concern us all. As Spain enters a deep recession, I can only fear for the future of young Moroccans for whom a dangerous trip across the Med may prove to be futile.