DVD Review: Tangier Treehouse

Tangier Treehouse (2007) offers a brief sketch of some Arab boys attending a vocational school in the second most famous city in Morocco. The kids from the Darna Youth Center must overcome linguistic barriers as well as generational differences when three middle-aged westerners arrive to help supervise the building of a tree house.

Most interestingly, this youth center is divided into different vocations (cooking, metal work, carpentry, etc.), offering students the opportunity to learn skills that enhance their chances of staying alive in an economy hemorrhaging young people to drugs, idleness and Europe. Despite some mild bickering among the boys, everybody seems to be good natured, spirited and focused.

The film contrasts these students with some sportily-dressed but aimless street youths, all of whom dream of leaving Morocco, by revealing some troubling statistics: "a third of young males are unemployed" and "30,000 Moroccans emigrate illegally to Europe every year." Daunting data to be sure. Though these statements, among other factors, lend some plausibility to the Eurabian thesis, the consequences of unemployment and emigration are severe for North Africa as well.

Despite its good intentions, a gentle approach, and a focused thesis, Tangier Treehouse suffers from two critical missteps. First, when the narrative focuses on broader social issues, the documentary falters. Morocco's severe unemployment problems go without much examination. The filmmakers hint at the deep social problems afflicting a country struggling with issues of Arab-European acculturation but fail to address some fundamental questions about the Moroccan economy. Why is unemployment so severe? Broader social and cultural issues are complicated to tackle, but such issues have a direct bearing on the boys as the film explicitly points out.

Conceivably and practically, a vocational education helps students improve their income potential, so are Morocco's problems only about a poorly skilled workforce? Wayward youth? Probably not. Second, the film seems to spend the least amount of time with the most interesting person -- Jaber, a journeyman and teacher at Darna, who is in many scenes, but whose presence is subordinated by the three visitors.

Though Tangier Treehouse portrays these visitors as believable and caring, we’re not quite sure what to make of their work. The trio are a happy mixture of builders and aesthetes, and they seem like good natured men. But is their workshop a charitable endeavor or the labor of social justice? Certainly, activists who give materials and inspiration to children are providing short-term benefits, but most credible activists look for ways to develop and maintain relationships with children, particularly when one of their goals is mentoring.

To their credit, I suppose, these men make no pretense of providing long-term care for these kids (at least, none that is stated) as they depart after ten days, but, as Tangier Treehouse presents them, they seem more like simple adventurers looking to satisfy their own interests rather than truly uplifting these kids or improving cross-cultural relations. No doubt, this interpretation is probably not the case, for one suspects these men have to respect the realities of these boys as well as be sensitive to the complications related to maintaining inter-cultural relations.

But such adult insights are largely absent, for the filmmakers tend to short-change all of the grown-ups in explaining their visions, missions and initiatives, and place the kids in a simple social context that requires more explanation to understand Morocco's complicated problems. Too bad. The mini-case study framework of Tangier Treehouse is compelling enough, and the filmmakers do interview some of the kids, but the documentary scrimps on analysis by summarizing too much for a discerning audience.

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