Brave and dubious choices in film about jihadist Kamal

Every viewer will answer the question of how choose it is to intersperse a drama about a Brussels Syrian traveler with song and dance numbers. As well as whether he goes to Syria of his own choosing to fight Assad or is a plaything of history. And then there is the moral question: is it possible to understand at all the actions of Kamal, hero of Rebel?

Also read an interview with directors Adil and Bilall about ‘Rebel’: ‘IS fighters looked like us, very confrontational’

Rebel is the new film by the Belgian duo Adil and Bilall. They broke through in Hollywood with Bad Boys for Life (2020) and return with Rebel back to the Brussels district of Molenbeek, which also featured in their debut film black (2015). The main character is Kamal, a drug dealer with a penchant for fast motorcycles. He is kind to his 12-year-old brother Nassim and their mother Leila. But when he runs into the light and the police find drugs at their home, Leila firmly rejects him.

Kamal leaves for Syria where he first fights against Assad and later is recruited by ISIS reluctantly. He works as their cameraman but one day ends up as an executioner in one of their violent, professionally shot and slickly edited propaganda videos. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah illustrate that Kamal is really good by letting him be nice to the bride bought for him, the Yezidi Noor.

Meanwhile, Kamal’s brother Nassim, much to his mother’s chagrin, is sensitive to a smooth-talking recruiter (“Your brother is a hero”). Does Nassim go after his brother, whom he looks up to?

Guts cannot be denied to Adil and Bilall. For example, they make a parallel montage between a bombed-out hospital in Aleppo and a rap song in a decadent disco in Brussels. Not subtle, but exciting. Slightly more dubious is their choice to film a rape scene as a stylized dance sequence, not to mention a severed head talking about Paradise.

On the other hand, there are strong scenes, such as the moment when mother Leila reproaches the police for not doing anything against recruiters, because with every Syria traveler there are “fewer Arabs to keep an eye on”. The duo divides their film into chapters with narrative raps and songs, which serve as interludes. So it is about “blood shed” – the calm before the storm.

Sometimes the balance is also lost in their style choices. Dynamically filmed, immersive moments are contrasted with less convincing scenes, such as Kamal teaching his bride to ride a motorbike, filmed in the desert against a romantic backlight caused by the setting sun. The brutal Syrian reality becomes a tribute to a classic here Lawrence of Arabia. Choose or unselect?

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