In 1954, William Burroughs wrote that “Tangier is a vast overstocked market, everything for sale and no buyers.” Half a century later, circumstances in the city may have changed, but that same sentiment finds itself modulated by a cab driver as he tosses a portentous glance to Badia (Soufia Issami) and tells her that “Tangier only gives to foreigners.” The protagonist of Moroccan writer-director Leila Kilani’s On the Edge, Badia is a young woman who’s moved from Casablanca to Tangier to make a living. Hoping one day to land a job in the more prestigious factories of the city’s Free Zone, we see her at work in a less glamorous shrimp processing facility, where the sterile whitespace is marred by the orangish slime and grime of piles of shrimp shells. That kind of grime permeates the film and the dingy, noirish urban environments that Badia wends her way through.
Badia isn’t a personable or empathetic character, but as the driving force of the story, her behavior is a fascinating display. She seems continuously possessed by a hyperactive, twitchy nervousness, and her thoughts come across to us not via the steady drip of personal reflection, but in salvos, through internal and external monologues that serve as bursts of consciousness from a stormy mind. Everyone around her can sense the jagged edges of her personality; at work she’s told that she may have mastered all the parts of the process, but “you don’t fit in with the other girls.” She’s well aware of this, and doesn’t plan to stick around; she has other goals in mind. The web of intrigue that drives the film comes from the other side of her life; in the evenings she goes out with her friend, Imane (Mouna Bahmad), parties with strange men, and then steals from them. On one of these encounters they meet another pair of girls, the thievery escalates, and complications ensue inside and outside the Free Zone.
On paper the structure resembles something approaching a crime or heist film (the specter of the “one big score” is even invoked), but Kilani confounds expectations by enveloping us in the intensity of Badia’s subjectivity. The film lurches into manic, frenetic passages of Badia in action: When she eats, she shoves bread and milk into her mouth because the time demanded by a leisurely meal is outside her consideration—or she’s frantically scrubbing her skin raw, trying to get the stench of shrimp off her. If we received a sense of the bigger picture, we might see the petty stakes underlying Badia’s world. But that big picture is a luxury she doesn’t have, and neither do we. Instead we’re plunged through the narrowness and claustrophobia of crowded nighttime streets where the people are as invisible to Badia as she is to them.
These techniques effectively produce the destruction of geography and dislocate us in space. We sense the importance of the Free Zone and the corporations within, and the threat of gangland retribution by Badia’s targets lurks at the edges of the story. But if these places feel disconnected, and the people escape our full understanding, then we might begin to see the world as Badia does, through the surety of objects. Whether it’s a bucket of shrimp or a crate of iPhones, to take or have or lose these things is what matters. Burroughs also wrote that “Tangier is running down like the dying universe, where no movement is possible because all energy is equally distributed.” Here, Kilani gives us a portrait of a woman rebelling against that state of affairs, driven by ambition and desperation; in the Tangier that we see, those two seem like the same thing.