Cabo Negro

VERDICT: In writer-director Abdellah Taïa's ode to youthful rebellion 'Cabo Negro', two heartbroken queer Moroccans take refuge in a luxury villa to confront old traumas and share solidarity.

Paris-based, Morocco-born writer and filmmaker Abdallah Taïa returns to film with Cabo Negro, a queer drama based in the posh coastal city of the same name on the Mediterranean. It world-premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this week.

The story kicks off when two friends from Casabalana, Sondouss (Oumaima Barid) and Jaffar (Youness Beye), arrive in a fancy villa in Cabo Negro, supposedly rented for a whole month by Jaffar’s teacher and lover Jonathan, who is yet to turn up. In addition to enjoying their time at the beach, cooking, browsing photo books, making tea, and hiking in the woods, Jaffar has a personal connection as his father is buried in the mountains nearby.

Both the film’s main characters are queer, and as the plot develops Jaffar and Sondouss get their hearts broken when their lovers ghost their calls. And as there is no sign that Jonathan is showing up, they start making ends meet to afford food and rent, eventually engaging in sex work, confronting societal and gender norms. Despite this heavy set-up, the film combines some of the playfulness of City of God (2002), the abandonment in Call Me by Your Name (2017), and the unrequited love in Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria Again and Forever (1990).

The house that the duo temporarily keep, poetically, ends up being a place for solidarity and acceptance, not just between the two, but for others who also have been pushed out by society. During their stay they run into a young French-Moroccan man who is visiting his grandmother’s grave, after his father banned him from seeing her when he found out he was gay. They also meet a man who escaped from prison and travelled from Casablanca, fleeing the police. Another encounter involves a group of sub-Saharan African refugees resting in the woods while on their way to the sea to head across to Europe.

In filmmaking terms, Taïa and his cinematographer Julia Mingo are rigorous and ascetic, brilliantly spotlighting the characters with their defeats and victories, and the constant solidarity they provide to other strangers. On the scriptwriting front, however, followers of Taïa’s novels, interviews, and debut film Salvation Army (2013) will easily spot some autobiographical elements and repeated themes. Like Taïa, Jaffar had an abusive upbringing which subjected him to repeated sexual violence and harassment by other men in his hometown in Morocco. Both Jaffar and Soundoss are fascinated by a coffee-table book showing posters of classic Egyptian films from the 1960s, and actresses like Souad Hosni and Faten Hamama; the same uncensored softcore femininity that attracted Taïa as a child. Soundoss picks up a book entitled Jihad for Love (translated here as ‘A Battle for Love’), the same name as a 2007 documentary Taïa was featured in, which explored the dilemmas of being Muslim and queer.

While these elements were integral in Taïa’s experience growing up in Morocco, and why he ended up living in Europe, he does not force them upon his character, thus distinguishing between his experience and their experience. Cabo Negro offers a new dimension to stories and films where the words ‘Arab’ and ‘queer’ are mentioned in the synopses, presenting a narrative that surpasses the much-discussed and overused angle on the “dilemma” of being Arab and gay. Instead, Taïa simply allows his characters to just live and be, and engage with other challenges. Indeed, the slow-burn and at times chaotic script does not lead viewers to any satisfying or comforting conclusion, hinting that Soundouss and Jaâfar are not waiting for some kind of clear salvation, a cleric or a parent to finally accept them as they are. They just live life to the fullest, on their own terms.

Director, screenwriter: Abdellah Taïa
Cast: Youness Beyej, Oumaima Barid, Julian Compan
Producer: Saïd Hamich Benlarbi
Cinematographer: Julia Mingo
Editor: Nobuo Coste
Production companies: Barney Production (France)
Coproducers: Mont Fleuri Production, Sihamou
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Proxima Competition)
In Arabic, French, English
76 minutes

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