Venice 2020 review: Zanka Contact (Ismaël el Iraki)

A rock star with a drug habit, a hooker with a heart of gold. There is no shortage of clichés in Ismaël el Iraki’s debut feature Zanka Contact, a gritty mixture of musical, romance, and western playing in Venezia’s Orizzonti section. Underneath the clichés is a story of two lost souls trying to cope with grief from traumatic events in their past. Love and music can overcome this grief, but it is questionable whether Zanka Contact can convincingly get that message across.

When has-been rocker Snake Larsen (Ahmed Hammoud) quite literally bangs into streetwise prostitute Rajae (Khansa Batma), he doesn’t realize that their meeting might change his life for the better. Trying to keep a low profile in his birth city of Casablanca in order to be able to pay off a debt, the prototype heroin-addicted artist with a tortured soul that haunts him falls for Rajae, herself still battling with demons from her past. He looks to the needle for solace, she tries to find it at the bottom of a bottle. Their start is rocky, but as soon as Larsen hears her sing in the shower he is hooked. Their budding relationship threatens to get her into trouble with her pimp Saïd (Saïd Bey) though, and she already is in muddy water after pissing off (by pissing on) an important client. After both are humiliated by Saïd they take matters into their own hands and go on the run. They head into the desert, Saïd and the son of the important client hot on their heels.

Given that the story is about a musician, it should come as no surprise that Zanka Contact features music heavily. The film tries to paint this as a through-line that connects Larsen and Rajae, but this idea doesn’t really gel until the very end of the film in what is Zanka Contact‘s strongest scene. This doesn’t mean that the music itself, mostly relying on heavy blues rock, isn’t good, but the pieces feel more like punctuations than actual connections integral to the story.

Of better note is Zanka Contact‘s frank depiction of prostitution. Although widespread, the practice is still illegal and frowned upon in Morocco. A mere five years ago Nabil Ayouch’s Much Loved, a film about the Casablanca prostitution scene which screened in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight that year, was banned in its home country for “contempt for moral values and the Moroccan woman.” The same fate befalling Zanka Contact is certainly a possibility, but its grim and honest look at what drives some women in Morocco to become sex workers is as refreshing as it is sobering.

In general, the way Zanka Contact handles the grief of Larsen and Rajae is its most laudable aspect anyway. Larsen’s recurring fever dreams of a beat-up (and later dead) woman are haunting and culminate in an intimate and affecting account by Larsen to Rajae of who this woman was. Likewise, when Saïd tells his important client the story of how Rajae came to him, the emotion in Bey’s voice and body language bring the tone of the film to a solemn and sad standstill. Therein, however, lies the problem with Zanka Contact: tonally this film veers too much from dark and serious drama to romance and comedy. The issues it finds underneath the surface of its characters are too dark for a lighter tone that can be found elsewhere in the film. Despite the cast’s best efforts (Batma’s easy charisma in particular wins you over), this makes Zanka Contact an uneven watch that begs for a stronger authorial voice. Some scenes stick, most notably the more dramatic ones, but as a whole it is a film easily forgotten.