Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, a.k.a. Adil & Bilall: “‘Rebel’ is our most personal film”

Belgian-Moroccan filmmakers Adil El Arbi (b. 1988) and Bilall Fallah (b. 1986) first gained attention in 2015 with their film “Black.” It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the Discovery section. Their further film credits also include “Gangsta” (2018), selected at the Palm Springs International Film Festival where Adil & Bilall were shortlisted in “10 Directors to Watch” and in 2020, they directed “Bad Boys For Life” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. The film grossed over $426 million worldwide.

Adil & Bilall’s television credits include pilots for the critically acclaimed FX series “Snowfall” (2017), as well as the Belgian TV series “Soil” (2021) which debuted on Netflix in 2021 after winning three Ensor Awards in Belgium. More recently, they directed the pilot and additional episodes of the highly anticipated series “Ms. Marvel” starring Iman Vellani. They also served as executive producers on the series, which debuted on Disney+ on June 8, 2022. Their latest feature film, “Rebel,” which they also scripted, premiered as a Midnight Screening at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

“Rebel” (2022, trailer)

“Rebel” focuses on the character of Kamal (played by Aboubakr Bensaihi). When he resolves to improve his life, he leaves Belgium to help war victims in Syria. But, having arrived, he is forced to join a militia and is left stranded in Raqqa. Back home, his younger brother Nassim (a role for Amir El Arbi) quickly becomes an easy prey for radical recruiters, who promise to reunite him with his brother. Their mother, Leila (played by Lubna Azabal), fights to protect the only thing she has left: her youngest son.

Filmmakers Adil & Bilall will appear in person at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday, September 22 & 23 for Q&As after the 7:00pm shows. Friday’s show will be moderated by Oliver Stone. Saturday’s show will be moderated by international programmer and producer Evrim Ersoy.

The film’s website is Rebel Motion Picture.

This interview with Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah was included in the English-language press kit for the film.

What is your definition of the word ‘rebel,’ and why did you choose it as the title of your film?

The word ‘rebel’ is immediately understandable in many languages, so ideal, internationally speaking. It’s simple and iconic. It symbolizes different aspects of our film. First, the historical aspect around the lexical field of the Syrian propaganda of the Islamic State, which called its fighters rebels. Then in the way one of the characters, Kamal, the older brother sees himself, as a rebel who rides a motorbike, like in a James Dean movie. And finally, there are those rebelling against the Islamic State and its dictatorship.

Aboubakr Bensaihi plays Kamal in “Rebel” | Caviar

Why did you tell this story: the radicalization of a young Belgian of Moroccan origin and the consequences for his family?

In 2012, 2013, people our age, our generation, most of them of Moroccan origin like us, who lived in Belgium, decided to go to Syria. It was something we’d never seen before. There was no such phenomenon during the war in Iraq. Sometimes we knew these young people, or they were friends of friends. Everyone in Belgium of Moroccan origin knew someone who went; these young people often went in groups. We wondered what they were going to do in Syria.

And in 2014?

In 2014, suddenly, things accelerated. The Islamic State established its hegemony. The whole world really found out about the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016. We all witnessed this progressive phenomenon involving our entire generation. This was a war very close to us, suddenly, whereas usually, wars took place without us and far away. We had never seen Belgians, Flemish people, in that part of the world. It was a new thing, for example, to see propaganda films from terrorist organizations with people who looked like us, spoke like us, and came from our neighborhoods. It seemed impossible. We both felt that we had to tell these stories. We were already interested in doing that in 2013, but while we were writing, we realized that the situation was changing every year, then every month. We were witnessing a war that was somehow ours, our generation’s war. We had to talk about it, as other filmmakers talked about Vietnam or World War 2; for us, it was this war.

Bilall Fallah, Amir El Arbi who plays Kamal’s younger brother Nissam, and Adil El Arbi on the set of “Rebel” | Caviar

What kind of prep did such a subject require?

We did a tremendous amount of research. We spoke to many people. In 2014 we collected the first stories of young people we knew who went there. We talked with their families. We listened a lot and took notes. In the end, the film isn’t based on the story of a single family but on several interweaving stories that we wanted to reconstitute as realistically as possible. The Islamic State is something truly different from all other terrorist organizations. We worked a lot on the evolution of this movement, we had to deliver as nuanced as possible a narrative to understand how this organization abused young people. What makes young Belgians who play football become radicalized to the point of going to Syria? It’s as if they’re part of a gang. It seemed very important to us to make a film that would also be like a historical document, something quite complete. We had to try and make the complexity of the evolution of the Islamic State and the horrors its members have committed comprehensible because it’s not only a question of religious radicalization, but also the story of a movement that could qualify as organized crime.

The family in “Rebel” consists of a single woman and her two sons. One is a young man, and the other is still a child. Why this configuration?

The older brother represents the youths who went to Syria before the Islamic State existed, to prevent massacres perpetrated by Bashar El Assad and his regime against his own people. Some left for humanitarian reasons, others to fight, and others because they were already radicalized. So it was a mix of motivations. Among these people, many left with a naïve and idealized notion that they’d help protect and defend a population of innocent people. Once there, these non-Syrian fighters of foreign origin were faced with the fast-growing extremism of the Islamic State. Its members are like the mafia; they eliminate all the other organizations and take all these young people, some of whom were real monsters but others who had no idea what awaited them.

Is this what happens to the character of Kamal, who left for Syria to help people?

Yes, we also wanted to explain how radicalization works in Belgium, the kind of brainwashing of which these young people and the characters in the film are victims. They are taught about Islam, but also much more about other things to recruit them, it’s like a sect. Faced with this, the mother, played by Lubna Azabal, symbolizes the distress of these many Belgian parents. There were cases of children who became radicalized in the space of three weeks and ended up in Syria! What to do as parents? Many fear that their children will become lost in this radicalization; they, too, are victims. We also chose to film a family where the father is absent to show how recruiters can take advantage of fragile domestic situations. The recruiter is a bit like the big brother who fills a gap; it often happens that many of these young people who leave do it to fill a void, to give meaning to their lives, and a terrorist organization like the Islamic State makes very good use of their search for direction.

Actress Lubna Azabal in “Rebel” | Caviar

You set the Belgian part of your film in Molenbeek, a city now notorious for the number of young people who left for Syria.

Molenbeek and Belgium proportionally have the largest percentage of people who left for Syria to fight for the Islamic State. The Belgians in Syria were known as the ones who arrived at the beginning of the war in Syria. Nobody can explain why Belgium has this high percentage, two or three times the norm of other countries. Many young people feel they don’t exist, but there, in Syria, they are told they will; they will be part of something great and important, and they will be heroes. Everyone wants to exist, to do something bigger than themselves.

You make a cinema concerned with movement, with territories. Your characters are in constant motion. “Rebel” is the epitome of this, with a flow between several countries.

This comes from our own identities. We both grew up as people of Moroccan origin born in Belgium. It’s not always easy, particularly when you’re young. Are you Belgian? Are you Moroccan? Are you Flemish? When you’re a child, you think you’re Belgian like everyone else, but as a teenager, you are put in a box. That’s when you understand that you’re not like the other Belgians. Whether you wanted it or not, from September 11, 2001, you were made to realize that you were Arab and Muslim. Our names are different; we don’t exactly look like the others. So you start looking for yourself, for a clear identity. OK, so we’re Moroccan, Muslim, that’s our tribe, until you try to integrate this tribe, be it in Morocco or Belgium. But here again, you understand you’re not a hundred percent Moroccan either! That you are still Belgian, that you are also in part the product of your environment, the territory on which you grew up. So, you are always looking for yourself, for your identity, particularly at the age when you are in search of yourself. We talk about that in our films: never knowing where you belong. This is the case with the young characters in “Rebel.” They don’t know exactly who they should be, so they take on the most extreme identity, that way it’s clear they know where they stand, until they realize they’ve joined a tribe of monsters. Even if it’s a terrible illusion, radicalism can be comforting when you don’t know where or who you are, when you’re between two cultures, the product of a mix no one wants. Once in Syria, these young people realize that the reality is very different from what they thought, that the Syrians are the first victims of the Islamic State as they were the victims of Bashar Al Assad’s regime. We wanted to show that. These young people also encounter other Arab languages, the Arabic spoken in Syria is not the same as in Morocco, etc., making them wonder even more about who they are. Moroccan. Belgian… it’s not easy to know who you are.

Bilall Fallah with Adil El Arbi on the set of “Rebel” | Caviar

One of the traits of your cinema is the use of music. You go beyond using a soundtrack or a song to illustrate sequences since “Rebel” is a musical tragedy. Can you tell us about this choice?

Music is important in all our films. And musical is one of our favorite film genres. It started with Disney films, “Alladin” [1992] and “The Lion King” [1994] and later with films like “Moulin Rouge” [2001] by Baz Luhrmann. We have always said we’d make a film with full musical sequences one day. The tragic subject of “Rebel” lent itself to this. The characters’ complexity and motivations for moving to a war zone… We thought all this would be expressed in an unforgettable way through song and dance. No dialogue spoken in a classic way would achieve the strength of this form of expression carried by music and song. The musical aspect is a perfect tool for this film because it is an important aspect of Arabo-Islamic culture. It’s modern hip hop just as much as traditional pure melody, in the spirit of Scheherazade recounting the “One Thousand and One Nights.” Arabic poetry is renowned, and many musical instruments were invented in Arabic countries; music is a big part of our culture. It’s rich, diverse, significant, political and poetic, lyrical, and a great source of influence, and what was interesting was that the Islamic State is totally against music. They banned it in Mosul; some people who left Iraq because they owned a musical instrument shop played for our film. For the Islamic State, music is the enemy; for us, it is the richness and the whole diversity of our culture. Music is appropriate if we want to make a film that is also a kind of tract against the Islamic State. It is universal; it touches the heart directly, it’s not intellectual. When Kamal sings and dances about why he wants to leave, he does it in a powerful rap that matches the origin of hip-hop, a militant genre. Aboubakr Bensaihi [who plays Kamal] is also a rapper; he wrote the songs he sings in the film. And there is also the singer Oum, who recalls the heart-breaking traditional song style. Combining these two musical styles was our logical ambition to make a modern “Arabian Nights.”

How did you choose your actors?

Aboubakr Bensaihi was the lead in our film “Black.” He’s also from Molenbeek; he knows people who went. The subject is close to his heart, so it was logical that he’d be Kamal. Lubna Azabal is our favorite actress; it was our dream to work with her. Growing up in Brussels, we thought, she’s a Belgian actress and Moroccan who makes international films. She’s a big star who has acted in many films. Finally, the part of Nassim is played by Amir El Arbi, Adil’s younger brother. He was ten when we shot the film. He’s someone who has always watched the news, a bit like Adil at his age, so he knew about the Islamic State. He remembers how stressed we were when the Paris attacks occurred, then later in Brussels. Here, it’s a massive trauma for all. Of course, when he read the script, he learned a lot more about what happened in Syria, but we didn’t show him any videos, only photos of radicalized children dressed as soldiers, posing. Amir took on his role with great maturity; he understood what was being acted out.

The relationship between male and female characters is treated in a very specific way. There’s the traditional relationship to the mother, which is essential, and the more complex, intimidating relationship with the young woman. How did you work on the connection of these young heroes caught between East and West and women?

By working on the relationship Kamal has with a sense of his decency. This relationship differs depending on the education you receive in each family, of course, but there is a common thread that can be drawn from some of these young men who left. This thread leads to a somehow uncomfortable relationship that leads, again in the case of these young people in Syria, to two extremes: either we allow ourselves everything or nothing. In both cases, this is a false relationship these young men have; they don’t know how to handle it, and they haven’t been able to learn how to build a natural and healthy bond with women. You often find this in neighborhoods with a lot of social control and stress. People from the Islamic State use the abuse of women as a weapon of war. Women are the greatest victims of these conflicts, which is why it was necessary to show it in the film, the lives of these women in this war.

Adil El Arbi with his brother and actor Amir El Arbi | Caviar

Talk to us about your visual choices. In what spirit did you film Belgium, with those dark, cold blues, and Syria, in blinding ochres, both shades being very significant and ultimately violent?

With Robrecht Heyvaert, our DP, who has worked on all our films, we had just shot “Bad Boys For Life,” so a different cinematographic atmosphere, since for “Rebel,” filmmakers like Jacques Audiard—for his deep and edgy sense of hard, powerful light—and Hirokazu Kore-Eda—whose films we all watched during the writing, for his sense of family storytelling—inspired us. We could also add Denis Villeneuve with “Incendies.” Visually, we knew we needed a difference between Belgium and Syria, even if, without even wanting it, this difference came automatically since the sun and the environment of the two countries are so different. Belgium is an old country with ancient architecture, but there’s also a lot of concrete, the weather is grey, it’s cold; then we go to a completely different world, Syria is a territory of Westerns. They don’t have horses, but they have motorbikes! We filmed this Wild West, which has nothing mythical about it, without embellishing anything.

Similarly, how did you work on the sound?

The sound was designed to highlight the fact that “Rebel” is a musical tragedy and a war film. The sound ‘renders’ the environment through which the characters move. It allows an immersion that’s indispensable to this type of cinema. We are in this world, but not only. The sound also allows us to play with the real, the surreal, the conscious, and the unconscious. It was of paramount importance to us. We had to have moments where we’re not sure that what we’re seeing is reality—maybe we’re in a dream, in the imagination, perhaps we’re in the head of our characters, while suddenly the repeated sound of a motorbike plays like a reminder for Nassim, the little brother, of Kamal’s absence. But the sound of this bike is also the sound of freedom to conquer, thus the sound of danger, risk, and poetry. The sound required the most work and research to infuse our film with a special identity.

What did you learn from this film?

It’s our most personal film. The most poetic. It taught us that making musicals is even harder work than classic films, but the next time, we’ll go even further.

[Source: English-language press kit for “Rebel”]

REBEL (2022) DIR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah PROD Bert Hamelinck, Dimitri Verbeeck SCR Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Kevin Meul, Jan van Dyck CAM Robrecht Heyvaert ED Frédéric Thoraval MUS Hannes De Maeyer CAST Aboubakr Bensaihi, Lubna Azabal, Tara Abboud, Youneds Bouab, Amir El Arbi, Joey Kwan, Céline Delberghe, Christopher Kuzongila