The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Rebel the latest by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Bad Boys for Life, Ms. Marvel and Batgirl) which premiered at 2022 Cannes Film Festival opens in theaters TODAY and has the directors utilizing their skillset in the action genre, to tell a very personal and moving story this time around. Rebel focuses on Kamal Wasaki (Aboubakr Bensaihi) an idealistic Belgian rapper who after getting busted for drugs in his home country flees to Syria to volunteer to help the victims of the war. Soon after he is kidnapped by ISIS where he is forced to shoot their propaganda videos thanks to his experience shooting his own hip-hop videos. Then one day to prove his loyalty, he is charged to kill a US soldier in front of the camera. When this clip is played on the news his family is reluctantly brought into the story.
While Kamal’s mother (Lubna Azabal) struggles with what drove her eldest son down that path that has branded her an outcast in her community. She starts to notice Kamal’s younger brother Nassim(Amir El Arbi) has become the target of local ISIS recruiters who wish to use his brother and video games to lure in him. Rebel looks to tell a story of war, radicalization and family that’s unflinching in its deception of the atrocities of war, while not losing site of the very humanity of people trapped in these conflicts. The director’s turn in what is easily one of the best films, which is unlike anything that’s ever tackled this material. Interspersed in the film’s narrative are musical interludes that manage to dig into the character, showing us Kamal’s inner struggles in a way that is usually associated with monologues, but instead showing us the world through his eyes.
In anticipation for the film’s release I got to speak with both Adil and Bilall about Rebel, dig a bit into the film and its very real-life inspirations and of course ask about Batgirl.
So you’ve directed Bad Boys for Life, Batgirl for the DCU, MS. MARVEL and now REBEL, that’s some pretty impressive range. What inspired you to tackle the much more challenging and personal story this time around, rather than another blockbuster?
Adil El Arbi: We love all, all kinds of movies, but this is a story that was so personal and that we’ve been working on throughout our Hollywood career. I think this is also the best movie we ever made, which is like the combination of everything that we learned, whether it’s in Hollywood, or in Belgium.
But for Bilall it was something very personal for him.
Bilall Fallah: I come from a neighborhood with the highest percentage of young Belgian Muslims that went to Syria. So I really saw it firsthand. I saw people I went to school with that I know as friends, I saw them leave. And then to see all the attacks in Europe, it was really painful to see and these guys that are just like us. They have the same background. They’re Belgium, Moroccan Muslims, and to see them in ISIS videos, it was like really disconnecting. We really wanted to understand what is happening and understand what this radicalization comes from, and how it affected not just the whole Muslim community, but also the whole world.
We felt like we had to tell this story, and that’s why, we decided not to go for a big commercial movie, but tell this super personal story, that I think is extremely important to tell.
Do you think with how prevalent radicalization has become on a world stage especially in America, people are more open to finally hearing the whole story of some of these ISIS recruits, because it’s never quite as simple as it seems and we see that because Kumar really didn’t sign up to be in Isis.
Adil El Arbi: Radicalization is a very universal story and it’s not necessarily only connected with a certain religion or ideology. When you watch movies about Muslim extremism, you would sometimes think, oh, it’s just Islam radicalism and that’s not how it is. (But) it’s much more complex than that. It functions as a cult or even as a criminal organization, as a mafia and ISIS used all the techniques of social media, of propaganda – making those slick videos and making it look like a video game and giving a sense of community to a young audience.
It’s something that extremism uses – that false sense of community. An individual might be not important in society or think he’s not important, but when he is part of that extremist group, all of a sudden he’s important. He’s working on something bigger than himself, and that is something that is true for not just Islam, but also for far right extremism, and all other kinds of extremism. ISIS was the first big internet terrorist group that perfected it.
You previously worked with your lead Abu on BLACK, and he’s back in the lead on Rebel and it’s an emotionally vulnerable performance, that’s the gateway for the audience into this world. How did you work with him on that performance and was it hard for Abu to give himself over to the role of Kumar because he definitely takes you through his journey?
Adil El Arbi: We consider Rebel to be really a historical document, in the same way that the Vietnam movies of Oliver Stone are a document of that era. It is trying to understand how it was inside ISIS, how the behind the scenes worked. A lot of these guys, they started out just like a lot of people that go to Ukraine to volunteer now. They started out with this ideology of trying to save people, trying to be a hero. But then all of a sudden this gets sucked in by this organization. It’s like a mafia, you cannot get out of it unless you die.
For Abu Bacca, who plays Kamal, it is very personal to him too, because he grew up in Moerbeke, the neighborhood where a lot of those that went on to ISIS guys grew up. He knew personally a lot of these guys, that eventually became part of ISIS and terrorists.
It’s labeled as the terrorist neighborhood of Europe, basically.
Bilall Fallah: He (Abu) felt like this label was an injustice to not just his community, but also to the whole Muslim community. He felt like he had to tell this story from a real deep human aspect and he portrayed it so well, because he knows it inside out. He knew these guys and he’s also a rapper. So casting him for us felt obvious.
The subject matter is so grim here, were the musical interludes always part of the narrative? I mean somehow they really managed to work and Abu really imbues them with his performance.
Adil El Arbi:In 2013, 2014, (when we started the project) we always wanted to put music in it because it was the best way we thought to convey the madness and the emotion, that pure narrative and dialogue could not. Music, poetry and dance touches the audience on another level, even if you do not understand the lyrics.
Music is such an important aspect of the Muslim Arab culture, whereas ISIS was radically against that. They were against rap, music, female voices and dance. So if you’re gonna make a movie against ISIS, you have a musical component. It’s also a way to get really inside the heads of the character and Aboubakr Bensaihi, who is very musical in his mind, also gives this kind of Arabian Nights vibe to the story.
It was a risk, obviously, we were not a hundred percent sure if it would work out. So we had a plan to edit the movie without it just in case. But once we edited together and we saw how emotionally it resonated in the heart of the audience, we felt, okay, we are on the right track. We keep it in.
That said, were there any you had to cut?
Adil El Arbi:(Laughs) That’s all we had because while doing those scenes, we understood why musicals are mostly Hollywood productions. Because it’s very hard to do and very expensive.(Laughs)
The action here is on par with your other work, but you really manage to imbue it with a weight of consequence and purpose. Was it hard to not to eclipse the emotional beats of the film and not overwhelm that story?
Adil El Arbi: I think the fact that we had this experience of Bad Boys for Life, the Jerry Bruckheimer Action School, we had this skill set to be able to focus and really dig deep on the characters. Our approach was always however big the situation we stay very close to our characters. We experience every moment with them. So the audience feels the danger and, and feels all of that cruelty and the harshness of the war scenes.
That definitely translates, because the film is very grim and it definitely doesn’t shy away from anything. I’m still haunted by that ending. Was that always the way you were gonna end the film?
Adil El Arbi: Well, the movie is a recollection of several real stories that we heard. One of the most heartbreaking was the story of a guy who was forced by ISIS to shoot his own mother. It’s like child soldiers in Africa, you heard similar stories. So all these separate stories resonated on a very emotional level to us. So we felt like this is the natural consequence, the natural ending of the movie.
Finally, as a fan of your work and being a comic book fan, I have to ask about Batgirl? What was that experience like, will we ever see it?
Adil El Arbi: Well, you know, we like to say, you wanna know what Bat Girl would’ve been like, well watch the most recent movie right before that. It was Rebel.
You know, the thing is that it’s still a mystery. I’m still not a hundred percent sure what happened, one day maybe we’ll write a book about it.
I would read that!
Adil El Arbi: But without a doubt, it’s the biggest disappointment of our career, obviously. Because, you wanna make a movie for the DC fandom, you know, they are, they are our boss. So we felt like they are the guys and girls that eventually should decide whether a movie is good or bad. They didn’t get the chance to do that. We didn’t get our day in court and, and make our case, that’s kind of unfinished business. But we go back and forth on that sometimes. We’re very sad and frustrated on one hand, but on the other, we got the chance to be in Gotham.
Leslie Grace gave a fantastic performance. She gave a very human and vulnerable take on Barbara Gordon, but also a strong Barbara Gordon, somebody that really grows with flaws. But has aspirations and you look up to her. Working with Keaton, who is the ultimate Batman, that was a fanboy, dream come true. Brendan Fraser was a villain with so much, it was heartbreaking, basically, to see how he played that villain. He was very nuanced and the movie overall was very Burton-esque, but also a bit more grounded like what Nolan did.
Bilall Fallah: It was like a wintertime Batman Returns world, you could say, with a very straightforward and grounded story.