This Wednesday, August 31, the feature film “Rebel” is released, directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. This work, centered on the question of jihad, shows Daesh’s propaganda methods. The directors entrust CNEWS with their research and reconstruction work.
Between intimate sequences and spectacular scenes. This Wednesday, August 31, the Belgian feature film “Rebel” is released in French cinemas. Shock film on jihadism, whose action takes place between Belgium and Syria, the work was thought by its directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (“Bad Boys for Life”, “Black”) as a pamphlet against Daesh.
The story follows the journey of Kamal, a young rapper from Molenbeek (Belgium) who joins Syria to help civilians in a territory at war. Forcibly recruited by Daesh, he tries to survive by providing propaganda. At the same time, recruiters are targeting his little brother in Belgium.
After “Black”, you make music videos in the United States, then you come back to Belgium with “Patser”. Same pattern for “Rebel”, shot after “Bad Boys for Life”. Why always this return “home”?
Adil El Arbi: I think it’s interesting to come back, to go back to the sources for very personal stories, like in “Gangsta” or “Patser”, which talks about drugs in Antwerp, where we know people who are in that environment. For “Rebel”, it is a reality that we already wanted to bring to the screen in 2013-2014, when there were the first departures from Syria of people we knew. These are stories that cannot be told in Hollywood. Over there, it’s an opportunity to make big action films, with stars, or to do projects with Marvel and DC, which you can’t do in Belgium.
On the poster, we notice that it is a film “by Adil and Bilall”. Besides, you seem to repeat that Rebel is your most personal film? What is the case?
Adil El Arbi: We wanted to make Adil and Bilall because we found our names too long and we wanted to make a trademark at the same time: “A film by Adil and Bilal”, it sounds direct.
Bilall Fallah: It’s also very personal, like friends.
Adil El Arbi: Obviously, it’s very personal because in 2012-2013, people we knew went to Syria. People who were born in Belgium, of our age, of Moroccan origin, like us, and who decided to participate in a war that was not theirs. Then, it evolved into extremism, Daesh, terrorism and finally, natives of Belgium blowing themselves up there. It was a phenomenon that had never happened before. Seeing people who speak the same dialect, the same language as us in Daesh videos, we never thought it possible. We told ourselves that one day, we should tell this story. That’s why we launched the project in 2013-2014, but things have changed because there hadn’t been any terrorist attacks yet. This is where we discovered everything that was happening with slavery, the Yazidis (Kurdish community targeted by Daesh in Iraq, editor’s note), child soldiers. We needed a little perspective to create a historical document on this decade.
You return to a film with strong social roots, with the events that we know in Molenbeek, how did you work upstream?
Bilall Fallah: We took eight years to work on this story. We went very far in research, speaking with people who were in Daesh, with mothers who lost their children, with soldiers who fought against Daesh.
Adil El Arbi: The beginning of our research is a bit like the beginning of the story, with people who left to protect others, like Kamal. And then, Daesh came into the story, just like the terrorist attacks, the child soldiers, so we had to add these elements. We created this family, based on several stories that we combined. It took a long time to build, because we had a lot of characters and it would have taken a series to process all of that. However, we wanted a story that lasted two hours.
Your film Black (2015) had been deprived of a French release because of its classification for children under 16. When you make a film on jihadism, which is moreover a war film, showing acts of torture, do you censor yourself?
Adil El Arbi: There is always violence, but it is more psychological than graphic. It is sometimes suggested, rather than showing the cruelty frontally. For “Black”, the release was scheduled at the time of the terrorist attacks, with a stigma on the city of Molenbeek (where part of the action of “Rebel” takes place, editor’s note). We were told that the film did not correspond to the political climate of the country at that time.
Bilall Fallah: However, we thought it was time.
Adil El Arbi: We were very disappointed. Subsequently, we gained experience in Hollywood and I think we had the perspective to release this film now. We feared the subject because we are in the thick of it. It was a balancing act. In a work that talks about a very hard subject, where we know that the war is very difficult, dirty, that horrors happen there, it can be too sanitized not to show anything. We have always shot the violent scenes in such a way that we can “show the horror”. But in the editing room, when we saw all these graphic scenes, it was sometimes too much and we no longer felt too much emotion. In any case, there is no specific censorship.
Your protagonist tries to survive by spreading Daesh propaganda. Does this mean that on the battlefield and in art, the camera is a weapon?
Adil El Arbi: In our research, we were able to observe videos of Daesh coming out every week. The more we saw, the more we said to ourselves that it was really “realized” (he makes the sign of the quotation marks), with castings, rehearsals, material. We pushed on that side to see how methodical they were. There is a psychopathic coldness, something calculated, very clinical. They are not psychopaths filmed in a hurry. Gradually, we were convinced that these people could make real films, but they use all their know-how, their technicality to make monstrosities, to carry out terrorism, it’s even more terrifying.
Bilall Fallah: This also recalls what the Nazis could do with propaganda films glorifying the regime (like Leni Riefenstahl, official filmmaker of the Hitler regime, editor’s note).
Adil El Arbi: Daesh makes our job, cinema, a weapon. This is the aspect that interested us and touched us the most. This aspect is not really present in the films and series that deal with this subject. I believe this shows another side of jihadism.
“Rebel” is as much a social drama, as a war film, as a musical, was this mixture of genres the basis of the project?
Adil El Arbi: The musical side came from the start. Already in 2014, we had a subject so complex, so difficult that we wondered how we were going to tell all these things in 2h15, while touching the spectator more than with dialogues. It’s the idea of creating a modern Arabic tale, our version of “One Thousand and One Nights”, that immediately spoke to us. This made the film more accessible, with such a difficult subject, bringing the viewer back to a somewhat special, somewhat transcendental experience, taking them to another country. This made it possible to have a pamphlet aspect against Daesh because they are radically against music. Female vocals and instruments were prohibited. If you want to make a film that denounces them, that seemed to be the best weapon against them. Especially since the Arab-Muslim culture is very musical, with poetry, and even today, with young people there is rap, it is their favorite genre. This is the clash that lives the main character, Kamal, who is a rapper and who finds himself in a world without music.
Bilall Fallah: It’s when he raps that he best expresses his emotions, whereas when he can’t, he’s afraid.