Writers: Adil El Arbi, Billal Fallah, Kevin Meul and Jan van Dyck
Directors: Adil El Arbi, Billal Fallah
Rebel is a gripping action thriller by writer-directors Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah which uses the life of a young Belgian Muslim to illustrate the brutal rise of ISIS in Syria and the spread of radicalism. Kamal Wasaki, his mother, Leila, and young brother Nassim live in Brussels, in Molenbeek, the notoriously deprived area which became synonymous as a breeding group for jihadi fighters. But Kamal’s interest isn’t politics. He’s something of a local celebrity as rapper DJ KAWAS, living a high-octane life with fellow Muslims, roaring round the streets on motorbikes and doing a bit of drug dealing.
The film opens with a terrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters executing enemy soldiers in cold blood. Only much later does the full truth of this scene emerge. The film’s purpose is to show the path that leads up to this and its consequences. Kamal is in reality no radical idealogue. In a terrifying scene shot at breakneck speed, we see him make the decision to avoid his own death by joining IS. His skills as a cameraman allow him to get by, commanded to film live action for propaganda purposes.
The narrative is fast and furious, cutting back and forth between events in the years from 2013 to 2016. The rapidly changing montages can be bewildering, but they’re effective in suggesting the swift escalation of events in Syria and the terrorist attacks that followed. The key message, for idealistic young men like Kamal, is that you have to pick a side – or rather, learn to survive when a side picks you.
President Assad’s chemical attack on Ghouta in 2013 is a wake-up call to Kamal. In a telling scene, he and his mates are in a café dismissing politics as boring, while in the background Barack Obama is shown on TV condemning the attack. Directors El Arbi and Fallah use an imaginatively surreal move here: Kamal starts to develop a compelling rap song, the scene now shot like a music video. He impulsively departs for Syria to help the humanitarian aid programme.
Much of the cinematography and editing is brilliant. There are breathlessly chaotic scenes in the immediate aftermath of attacks. In one we see survivors fight through debris to seek medical aid for an injured child. In another, IS fighters burst into a town they have just shelled, hurtling through a block of bombed flats, ceilings collapsing all around them. In all the chaos it’s hard to know who is on which side – and indeed Kamal accidentally shoots one of his comrades. Later there are chillingly effective scenes of torture.
Back in Molenbeek, 12-year-old Nassim, who hero-worships Kamal, is horrified to see the IS execution video and realise his brother is one of the executioners. Desperate to believe that Kamal is fighting for a higher cause, Nassim is easy prey for radicalisation. His mother is appalled when she realises Idriss, a local IS supporter, is grooming him, but gets no help when she appeals to the authorities.
The final part of Rebel works less well. The shadow of the 2016 terrorist attack on Brussels hangs over the whole film, but is never directly evoked. Instead Rebel turns into a slightly improbable adventure story, following Nassim’s abduction to a brutal IS training camp and Leila’s attempts to rescue him. A touching story line about Kamal’s bride – the couple were forced together following a slave auction – is allowed to peter out. The epilogue hits the wrong note, once again using the aesthetic of music videos, but this time, in showing all the central characters dancing in the desert, it is more cheery Bollywood than gritty European.
But overall, it’s a great film. The central characters are utterly convincing – Aboubakr Bensaihi as Kamal, newcomer Amir El Arbi as Nassim, and Lubna Azabal as Leila are all excellent. They are supported by a large and impressive cast and by wonderful cinematography (Robrecht Heyvaert), intelligent editing (Frédéric Thoraval) and an evocative music score (Hannes De Maeyer).
Signature Entertainment presents Rebel on Digital Platforms 16th January.