Nabil Ayouch travels to a rowdy Casablanca bar for this musically-driven drama starring Nisrin Erradi

Everybody Loves Touda

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘Everybody Loves Touda’

Dir: Nabil Ayouch. France/Morocco/Belgium/Denmark/Netherlands/Norway. 2024. 103mins

Music is everything for Touda (an electric performance from Nisrin Erradi). It’s her passion – she nurtures the dream of becoming a ‘Sheikha’, a traditional Moroccan female performer — and it’s also, she hopes, the means by which she will provide a better life for Yassine (Joud Chamihy), her deaf-mute 9-year-old son. To do so, however, she must leave her small village in the Atlas mountains, and relocate to Casablanca. The journey to the bright lights and the big city is not, however, the only thing she must negotiate. There’s also the small matter of the patriarchy, and the aggressively sexist attitudes of many Moroccan men.

 Crackles with energy every time Erradi opens her mouth to sing

The latest work from Nabil Ayouch reunites him with regular co-writer Maryam Touzani (director of 2022 Un Certain Regard title The Blue Caftan), and follows his 2021 Cannes Competition title Casablanca Beats, about a class of young aspiring rappers. Screening in Cannes Premiere, Everybody Loves Touda is another film exploring the theme of music as a vibrant means of self-expression, but there is also a kinship between this and Ayouch’s earlier film Much Loved, which followed a group of sex workers in Marrakech. Touda handles its themes of sexual politics a little crudely – a gang rape in the opening sequence is a blunt and ugly way to hammer home the point about society’s perception of women like Touda. But the film crackles with energy every time Erradi opens her mouth to sing.

When Touda indignantly claims that she is a singer, not a whore, the bar owner where she is performing shrugs noncommittally: “A little of this, a little of that.” Most of Touda’s earnings come not from the fees for her singing, but from the dirham notes that punters tuck into her bra and commission on the drinks she begs from lecherous men. It is small wonder that she longs to be recognised as a true artist. Erradi’s magnetism carries the film, and she is undoubtedly a key selling point for a picture that starts strongly, if contentiously, but slightly loses momentum by the final third.

The idea of female respectability in Moroccan society is a precarious and fragile concept. And while Touda is not quite as removed to the periphery of society as the single mother and adult son in Fyzal Boulifa’s The Damned Don’t Cry (2022), her profession marks her out, in the eyes of many, as inherently morally suspect. It doesn’t help that Touda is considered low-status and relatively powerless: she’s illiterate and is raising her child alone, having been, it is hinted, abandoned by the boy’s father. “That marriage was not a good idea,” comments Touda’s mother, who offers to care for Yassine while Touda pursues her dream in ‘Casa’. Not everyone in the family is as supportive as Touda’s mother and father. In common with most men, her hostile and judgemental brother considers Touda as tainted and shameful.

But there’s one man who sees her, not as a scandal waiting to happen, but as a musician of considerable talent. A wizened violinist (El Moustafa Boutankite), a member of the house band in the rowdy Casablanca bar where Touda finds work, acknowledges her potential and coaches her in the Ai’ta chants that characterise the traditional Sheikha performance. These chants are also used on the film’s score, to potent effect – a full-throated, spine-tingling call that signifies moments of transition for Touda

The lithe camerawork by Virginie Surdej (DOP on The Blue Caftan) adeptly captures the crowd dynamics in the venues where Touda’s galvanising energy starts the party. And with each riotous night full of pawing male hands and smirking innuendo, we see the spark go out of Touda’s stage show. Gradually, she realises that however finely she hones her skills as a Sheikha, the eyes of men are only ever going to see her in one way.

Production companies: Les Films du Nouveau Monde, Ali n’ Productions, Snowglobe, Viking Film, Stær, Velvet Films

International sales: mK2

Producer: Nabil Ayouch, Amine Benjelloun, Sebastian Schelenz, Katrin Pors, Mikkel Jersin, Eva Jakobsen, Marleen Slot, Elisa Fernanda Pirir

Screenplay: Nabil Ayouch, Maryam Touzani

Cinematography: Virginie Surdej

Production design: Eve Martin

Editing: Nicolas Rumpl

Music: Kristian Eidnes Andersen, Flemming Nordkrog

Main cast: Nisrin Erradi, Abdellatif Chaouqi, Jalila Talemsi, Lahcen Razzougui, El Moustafa Boutankite, Joud Chamihy