The Arab Spring has many faces. Malika (a charismatic Chaimae Ben Acha), the lead singer of the eponymous all-girl punk rock band at the center of writer-director Sean Gullette’s debut feature, Traitors, is a representative of the restless generation in the Moroccan port city of Tangiers. Inspired by the Clash hit, the Traitors practice a song with the refrain, “I’m so bored with Morocco, but what can I do?” To Malika’s father, his daughter is a misfit because she’s 25 years old and unmarried. She also doesn’t seem very interested in holding on to her job at an international call center. Her only interest, it seems, is to perform with her band, and her only goal is to raise enough money so the group can rent a recording studio to cut a demo.
The Boston-born Gullette, best known for co-writing and starring in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, is currently based in Tangiers, his wife’s hometown, and he clearly has empathy for his adopted city. In the first half of the film he reveals a skillful eye (and ear) for the quotidian in a portrait of middle-class life in urban Morocco and how an energetic young generation is effected by their familial relations. Take Malika, whose mother makes sure her two daughters get their breakfast before she heads out to clean apartments. Her father owns a garage, but seems to spend most of his time in coffee shops. So when the girl learns that her father’s business is failing, and that he’s neglected his family’s finances as well, she feels she must help keep the roof above her family’s heads in addition to trying to raise cash for her band.
Tangiers is a well-known hub for the international narcotics industry, so it’s only a matter of time before the financially strapped Malika gets involved in the drug trade. But to get there, Gullette, also the scriptwriter, sets up a sequence of events which doesn’t quite gel with what we’ve seen so far of the smart and resourceful Malika. A casual meeting at her father’s garage with a local drug dealer, who later shows up at an opportune moment to save her from a scrape she gets herself into, leads to her taking on a drug courier job.
It’s here that the film shifts gears into melodramatic terrain, with Malika driving a car, with a female passenger, up into the neighboring Rif Mountains—one of the world’s main sources of hashish. They’ll smuggle drugs back into the city, with the contraband hidden in the car’s doors. Not much happens on the way up, but on the return Malika strikes up a friendship with her companion, Amal (Soufia Issami), an experienced drug mule who’s a captive both to drug use as well as to her employer. The spunky Malika takes it upon herself to liberate Amal by helping her escape the clutches of the drug lords, which makes for a tense return journey since the women are now avoiding the police at the checkpoints and double-crossing the gangsters at the same time. Still, the whole drug episode is ultimately less interesting than the first half of the film that depicts life in Tangiers, and Gullette quickly disposes of the drug dealers so he can deliver an upbeat ending for his gutsy heroine. Apparently, Malika is following the spirit of a Moroccan proverb that’s quoted in the movie: “If you are a nail, endure the knocking. If you are hammer, strike.” There’s no question about which side of the equation Malika falls. By the end of the movie, she has scored several strikes—for women’s liberation as well as against the drug mafia.
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