Adil and Bilall: ‘IS fighters looked like us, very confrontational’

They directed in 2015 black , a Romeo and Juliet film about youth gangs inMolenbeek. They made in 2018 patser , about the Mocromafia. After that, theMoroccan-Belgian duo Adil El Arbi (34) and Bilall Fallah (36) – brand nameAdil and Bilall – were allowed to go to Hollywood to watch Will Smith’s actionfilm. Bad Boys For Life to direct, with a revenue of $456 million aresounding success. Now they come with Rebel a melodrama about jihadism fullof action and Bollywood-esque song and dance.

Adil: “We have the feeling that these kinds of films are not made in Belgium,any more than films about Moroccan drug crime. While those are such great,current and interesting stories.” Bilall: “I don’t think people dare to burntheir hands on it. While we experienced real war scenes on Belgian soil by ISin 2016 [bomaanslagen op de luchthaven van Brussel en in de stad, red.].Everyone remembers the panic, but movies aren’t about it.”

Adil and Bilall come from the Brussels district of Vilvoorde, which has seen adisproportionate exodus of jihadists to Syria since 2011. Like antihero Kamalfrom Rebel , who loves fast bikes; a rapper in the drug trade. When thepolice are on his tail, he leaves for Syria, which rose up against the Assadregime, also to do something noble with his life. There IS forcibly recruitshim and forces him to save his own skin through a series of crimes: firstfilming IS propaganda, then also executing a prisoner of war himself.

Adil and Bilall had just left film school when the exodus from Vilvoordestarted. Adil: “We started thinking about this film in 2013, when the firstwave had left for Syria and IS emerged. You saw friends leave with whom youhad grown up, sometimes whole groups. Some ended up with IS, some returned tocarry out attacks here in 2015 and 2016. Extremely confrontational, they werepeople with our Moroccan background, they looked like us. But there are nomovies from our perspective, with our understanding of the emotionalcomplexities behind them, the nuances.”

There are plenty of films about IS, usually from the perspective of victims,aid workers or opponents. There are also films about radicalization: Le jeuneAhmed from the Dardenne brothers or Layla M. by Mike de Jong. _Rebel_stands out because a perpetrator also turns out to be a victim. How kosher isthat?

Adil: “In the beginning, many people left for Syria out of idealism, becausethey saw an innocent people being slaughtered by a bloodthirsty dictator, asis now in Ukraine. There were moderate rebel groups fighting Assad withWestern support, IS was still a fringe phenomenon on the Iraqi border. But asa foreign fighter you ended up with a foreign brigade, among many fanatical,hardened jihadists. IS proved the most ruthless, removing rival leaders likein a mafia war to take over their soldiers. The Assad regime was fine withthat. This is how the resistance neutralized itself.”

Yet something is wrong. Each returning jihadist tells Kamal’s story. “I wasforced.”

Bilall: “That’s true, but our film also contains many monsters and fanatics.They are just not very suitable as a main character. Such a civil war is totalchaos, a maelstrom that the average coward just wants to survive. If you fallinto the hands of IS, then leaving turns out to be equivalent to a deathsentence, just like with the mafia. But if you stay, they’ll make sure you getblood on your hands. We show that logic through Kamal.”

Did you have a specific audience in mind?

Adil: “We want to make an accessible film and also attract young people to goto superhero films. That is not easy, because it is also a pamphlet against ISand the Caliphate and a kind of historical chronicle of the past ten years.”

Kamal’s brother, Nassim, is brainwashed through a recruiter and social media.

Adil: “He represents the second wave, which was brainwashed via social mediaand deliberately left for IS. Social media made IS so unique, parents had noidea their children were radicalizing in the bedroom. Neo-Nazi groups nowconsciously imitate IS techniques of community building. Al Qaeda was animprovised gang with clumsy films, IS films were slick Hollywood level, withscript, tracking shots, casting, rehearsals, slow motion. That’s what made ISso successful. Young people saw that they were not losers. That they weretechnologically up-to-date.”

Read the review of ‘Rebel’

Where did you film the Syrian scenes?

Bilall: „In Jordan, that is the perfect country for it. The Jordanian armyprovided us with weapons of war and there were huge numbers of Syrian refugeesto hire as extras or technical advisers. We got to know a man – you can seehim playing the recorder for a while in the film – who had a music store inMosul. He fled as soon as IS approached, which smashed everything to pieces.You might as well have a porn shop.

Adil: “That’s one reason we use music. Musicals with Arabic instruments,female singing and dance are part of our culture, IS banned all of that. ISwanted a barren world where nothing is allowed. That’s why music and dancefelt very appropriate. It also helps make a rather complicated, hard storymore accessible. Music and dance come in much more directly than dialogue.”

Why did Belgium have such a high percentage of jihadists?

Adil: “We think it has to do with identity. These are young people who aregoing through an identity crisis. France offers a clear choice: you are Frenchor you are not. the Netherlands too. Belgium itself is in an identity crisis.There are no Belgians, you are Flemish or Waal or Brussels or something else.This chaos makes it more difficult to find your place in society. The Belgiansystem is a toxic mix of laxity and hopelessness. In neighborhoods likeVilvoorde you don’t see any perspective to break out of. At the same time,there is a tendency from the government to look away and let things take theircourse.”

Bilall: “When those boys went to Syria and parents called the authorities, theattitude at first was: tidy is tidy. Fewer Arabs again.”

‘Rebel’ also touches on the question of what to do with returning IS membersand their children.

Adil: “I can understand that you say: stay there! Those jihadists wentvoluntarily to Syria and committed terrible crimes there. Why should theirchildren now have more right to be cared for here than children of theirSyrian victims? How fair is that?”