Writer and Director: Ismael El Iraki
In what has been a big year for quiet, thoughtful and issue-based filmmaking, the rock and roll, in-your-face energy of Zanka Contact feels refreshing. Debut filmmaker Ismael El Iraki tries to do too many things but makes the most of a vigorous style to serve up an unusual love story with a thumping soundtrack.
Owing thousands of pounds in England and no longer able to sing, faded musician Larsen agrees under duress to sign over the rights to his songs over and hide out in Casablanca. There, a car crash throws him directly into the path of concussed local prostitute Rajae who offers to sleep with him for a discount price. But a crazy love story begins that changes them both.
El Iraki’s film is not quite Pretty Woman or, despite its location, Casablanca, but it is still a lot of fun. The brazen confidence and power that Rajae – known professionally as Nisrine – exudes brings verve to the early part of the film bringing the audience quickly into the story and El Iraki well creates this fast-living story of two people still enjoying the party.
But the film soon settles into a more serious tone as Larsen is drawn into Rajae’s lifestyle where violence is always close to the surface, particularly as her pimp Said exerts a hold over both of them. El Iraki explores the effects of Larsen’s drug addiction with hallucinated scenes from the past that revisit him as strobed memories or fantasies, the veracity of which remains unclear at first.
Zanka Contact is, though, a film with a passion for rock music and El Iraki takes great pleasure in creating club scenes, sequences from Larsen’s stage performance career and private singing with his new acquaintances that help to maintain the momentum of the film and sometimes adds intimacy. But the overall effect is sometimes patchy as El Iraki cuts together action sequences, a romance, a troubled history for the hero, cartoon aggression and a bordello context that never rings quite true.
Told at the start of the film that “everyone’s forgotten you except YouTube,” Ahmed Hammoud does a good job of presenting Larsen’s various traits and vices, revelling in the comic excesses of his character’s behaviour and implying his unsatisfactory lifestyle. There is tragedy beneath the surface of Hammoud’s performance that makes Larsen more three-dimensional however and Hammoud convinces on stage during the gig sequences.
The audience’s introduction to Rajae with the line “booze is my colleague” sets her character early on and Khansa Batma is wonderful when adopting her outwardly brash persona. There is sensitivity as well and while she never fully convinces as a prostitute, Batma reveals the layers of damage that temper the comedy with more sympathetic threads.
The tonal shifts in Zanka Contact are a little blunt, never quite connecting the dots between its gangster movie, comedy, socially conscious, music film and love story credentials. Ultimately, this hinders a connection between the leads that is predicated on little except mutual trauma and a night of binge drinking. At two hours, the film is around 20-minutes longer than it needs to be and its presentation of violence somewhat derivative, particularly of Tarantino whose work is referenced increasingly as the story plays out, but El Iraki’s management of energy within his filmmaking will make his future work worth seeking out.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October