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

They directed in 2015 black, a Romeo and Juliet film about youth gangs in Molenbeek. They made in 2018 patser, about the Mocromafia. After that, the Moroccan-Belgian duo Adil El Arbi (34) and Bilall Fallah (36) – brand name Adil and Bilall – were allowed to go to Hollywood to watch Will Smith’s action film. Bad Boys For Life to direct, with a revenue of $456 million a resounding success. Now they come with Rebela melodrama about jihadism full of 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 burn their hands on it. While we experienced real war scenes on Belgian soil by IS in 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 a disproportionate exodus of jihadists to Syria since 2011. Like antihero Kamal from Rebel, who loves fast bikes; a rapper in the drug trade. When the police are on his tail, he leaves for Syria, which rose up against the Assad regime, also to do something noble with his life. There IS forcibly recruits him and forces him to save his own skin through a series of crimes: first filming IS propaganda, then also executing a prisoner of war himself.

Adil and Bilall had just left film school when the exodus from Vilvoorde started. Adil: “We started thinking about this film in 2013, when the first wave had left for Syria and IS emerged. You saw friends leave with whom you had grown up, sometimes whole groups. Some ended up with IS, some returned to carry out attacks here in 2015 and 2016. Extremely confrontational, they were people with our Moroccan background, they looked like us. But there are no movies from our perspective, with our understanding of the emotional complexities 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 jeune Ahmedfrom the Dardenne brothers or Layla Mike de Jong. Rebel stands out because a perpetrator also turns out to be a victim. How kosher is that?

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

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

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 total chaos, a maelstrom that the average coward just wants to survive. If you fall into the hands of IS, then leaving turns out to be equivalent to a death sentence, just like with the mafia. But if you stay, they’ll make sure you get blood 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 go to superhero films. That is not easy, because it is also a pamphlet against IS and 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 media and deliberately left for IS. Social media made IS so unique, parents had no idea their children were radicalizing in the bedroom. Neo-Nazi groups now consciously imitate IS techniques of community building. Al Qaeda was an improvised gang with clumsy films, IS films were slickHollywood level, with script, tracking shots, casting, rehearsals, slow motion. That’s what made IS so successful. Young people saw that they were not losers. That they were technologically 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 army provided us with weapons of war and there were huge numbers of Syrian refugees to hire as extras or technical advisers. We got to know a man – you can see him playing the recorder for a while in the film – who had a music store in Mosul. 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. IS wanted a barren world where nothing is allowed. That’s why music and dance felt very appropriate. It also helps make a rather complicated, hard story more 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 are going through an identity crisis. France offers a clear choice: you are French or 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 Belgian system is a toxic mix of laxity and hopelessness. In neighborhoods like Vilvoorde 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 their course.”

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

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

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

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