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Hounds – Muslim International Film Festival (Film Review)

3 min read

The Muslim International Film Festival, launched for the first time this year in London, aims to amplify the array of Muslim voices in filmmaking. It spotlights the rich tapestry of Muslim experiences around the world and is a timely initiative to counter the damaging Islamophobia often seen in our media and politics.

Opening the festival is the debut premiere of Hounds (or Les Meutes) from Moroccan filmmaker Kamal Lazraq. The film's backdrop is Casablanca's arid and gritty streets, and it follows a father and son teetering on the edge of poverty, barely able to afford anything more than scraps of offal meat. They rely on petty crime to get by until the father, Hassan (Abdellah Lebkiri), agrees to take on a kidnapping job from a mafia man. Hassan's task turns awry when the hostage accidentally dies, setting off a chain of other unintended events in which Hassan ropes in his son, Issam (Ayoub Elaid).

Hounds is almost entirely set at night, amongst Casablanca's shadowy lanes and dirt tracks with little more than a dusty yellow glow from streetlights to illuminate and obscure. The minimalist lighting aids the nefarious undertone which begins with a gripping first scene. It starts with an unnerving dogfight endorsed by two competing gang members and sets the course for further palpitation-inducing moments.

Lazraq weaves in small bursts of mysticism, as well as a touch of macabre humour. Such as when a strange, menacing man at an abandoned petrol station disappears just as suddenly as he reappears on the rooftop of the station to sing a call to prayer. There are a few more instances where people disappear, made all the more spookier in light of Hassan's belief in “jinn” or ghosts. Although there could have been more of these ethereal moments, they did give welcome depth as they added to the increasing moral and spiritual friction that Hassan and Issam were confronting.

Hounds competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the 76th Cannes Film Festival in 2023 and in an interview with Cannes, Lazraq described, “My actors come from very different social backgrounds. They have their struggles with addictions… The goal was to not hinder their natural intensity through too many technical constraints. They weren't managing to hit their marks, for example, so our method had to adapt to them.

The risk of using non-professional actors is pulled off — the performances are unvarnished and grounded, just like the real lives of the actors and their surroundings. Before the film, Lebkiri was running a small grilled sardine stand. His weathered face straggled with salt 'n' pepper curls. and a wizened raspy voice to boot, certainly makes a striking impression of a man who has had his fair share of life's lemons. Equally, Issam has an exacting intensity in his eyes befitting the underlying anger towards his dad for implicating him in his foolish ideas. In having to adapt to untrained actors, Lazraq's use of handheld cameras only dials up the tension even more.

Hounds certainly keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very end. It's a thrilling debut and points to a director who may have more tricks up his sleeve in the years to come.

Hounds screened at 2024 and releases in UK cinemas June 14