Cannes Select Movies

At Cannes, directors Adil and Bilall of ‘Ms. Marvel’ fame tell a personal tale with war drama ‘Rebel’

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Midnight screenings at the Cannes Film Festival are usually reserved for splashy, visceral, unbridled genre movies.  Rebel, a film by the Belgian-Moroccan directing duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (together billed as Adil and Bilall), is adrenaline-pumping fare all right. It is a deeply personal film too — unusual for a festival strand that celebrates the flashier, more fanciful aspects of moviemaking.

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Rebel probes the conflict in Syria and its impact on Molenbeek, a Brussels district the two filmmakers know all too well, through the prism of an affected family. “A lot of young people we know went to Syria to fight and suffered the consequences. We simply had to tell the story in an authentic, respectful way,” says Bilall, 36.

Close to reality
Actor Aboubakr Bensaihi, who plays the elder brother Kamal in ‘Rebel’, is from Brussel’s Molenbeek, where the film is set. “He grew up there with boys who went to Syria and either died there or came back completely radicalised. Therefore, ‘Rebel’ is a personal story for the actor too,” says director Adil El Arbi. In addition, Bensaihi is a rapper, a facet of his offscreen persona that imbues his onscreen character.

Adil and Bilall did not grow up in Molenbeek, but know the place well because parts of their families and friends live there. They felt the urge to rid the place of the stigma of being a nursery for terrorists. “It is,” says Bilall, “a very beautiful neighbourhood, very cinematic, with its preponderance of Arab and Moroccan stories. That is why we chose Molenbeek as the setting.” Adil adds, “We wanted to focus on the realities of the place, both the beauty and the heartbreak.”

Aboubakr Bensaihi in a still from ‘Rebel’

Aboubakr Bensaihi in a still from ‘Rebel’

In the big league

The duo gained prominence in Belgium in 2015 with their second feature film  Black, a modern interpretation of  Romeo and Juliet set in the Brussels underworld. The film fetched them the Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Impressed, leading Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer pencilled them in to direct  Bad Boys for Life (2020), the sequel to  Bad Boys II (2003) and the third instalment in the  Bad Boys franchise headlined by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. The film was a massive hit and catapulted Adil and Bilall into the big league.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in ‘Bad Boys for Life’ (2020), directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. 

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in ‘Bad Boys for Life’  (2020), directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. 

This year, besides helming  Batgirl, due for release soon on HBO Max, Adil and Bilall have directed two episodes of the upcoming, ground-breaking Disney+ miniseries  Ms. Marvel.

Ms. Marvel is the first-ever MCU entry with a Muslim superhero. The role of Kamala Khan, a Jersey City Pakistani-American teenager and inveterate  Avengers fangirl, marks the screen debut of Pakistani-Canadian Iman Vellani. Bollywood actor-director Farhan Akhtar, besides several actors of Indian and Pakistani origin, is a part of the cast.

Bollywood dreams
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who grew up on a staple of Hollywood blockbusters, are also aware of Bollywood as “a form of cinematic expression that targets a wide audience with its mix of drama, music and dance”. “We would love to come to Bollywood one day and make a big action film,” says Adil.

Ms. Marvel and an identity crisis

Adil emphasises Ms. Marvel’s struggle for identity as the principal hook of the narrative. “This, too, is a very personal project for us,” he says. “Kamala is a 15-year-old girl, a teenager, a Muslim, a Pakistani-American. She exists between two worlds. She isn’t 100% American. In school, she isn’t American enough. In Pakistan, she is too American. It is the same for us. We are Moroccans and also Belgians.”

That apart, Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl and a superhero. She belongs to both worlds without being exclusively and fully a part of either. “That is how we are telling the story,” says Adil. “The identity drama is crucial.”

With Rebel, however, the filmmaking duo is staring at an infinitely more vexed divide. They are aware of the backlash it might receive. “It might be controversial for Europeans as well as extremists in the Arab world,” Adil agrees. 

But that, he suggests, is exactly what makes  Rebel all the more exciting. “It was our responsibility to bring the story to the screen, especially after the Brussels terror attack. It is the story of our generation of Arab immigrants.”

A still from ‘Rebel’.

A still from ‘Rebel’.

An action-packed film laced with immersive rap music and Arab lyricism,  Rebel is about a young Brussels schoolboy, Nassim (played by Amir El Arbi, Adil’s little brother), whose elder sibling, Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi), goes to Syria to help the war victims and ends up against his will in an armed militia. Back in Molenbeek, the boy, desperate to be reunited with his brother, falls prey to radical recruiters. His mother Leila (Lubna Azabal) must fight to save Nassim.

At the heart of ‘Rebel’

In their storytelling, the duo draws inspiration from the works of American directors such as Spike Lee and Oliver Stone. The latter makes provocative films like  Born on the Fourth of July and  JFK because there is an urgent need to do so, says Adil. “There is nothing closer to us than the theme at the heart of  RebelPlatoon was Stone’s film on the Vietnam War (drawing upon his own experiences as a U.S. soldier).  Rebel is our film about Syria and jihad.”

Even as they straddle the two divergent worlds of Hollywood studio productions and independent films, the filmmakers are aware of the moral responsibility they shoulder. “We started out as Moroccan filmmakers making films in Belgium and telling stories that had never been told.  Rebelis a story that comes from our own background,” says Adil.

In the Hollywood studio system, they are learning the ropes, step by step. “This is what we want to do in our careers — make Hollywood movies while frequently returning to where we began, to the space of small indie movies. We will never lose our roots,” Adil signs off.

The writer is a New Delhi-based film critic.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2022 6:48:01 pm |