It's been a meteoric rise for Belgian directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. After making several celebrated films in their home country, the pair hit the big time when they were tapped to helm the third entry of the 'Bad Boys' franchise. Stepping into the bombastic shoes of Michael Bay, Adil and Bilall didn't put a foot wrong. The resulting film, 'Bad Boys for Life', became the most critically and financially successful film of the series. In the aftermath, they became hot property and spent a few years in the superhero sandbox. But for their latest film, 'Rebel', the guys knew they needed to pack their bags and come back home.
'Rebel' is informed by an all-too-familiar sight for Adil and Bilall. As youths, they saw many people they grew up with leave Belgium for Syria to get involved in the war. Their film follows a man who goes intending to help those in peril but is ultimately forced to join a militia. It's a deeply personal story that never shies away from the depravity of terrorism. But the subject matter never comes at the expense of the kinetic style that got them on Hollywood's radar. It is a truly audacious effort - there are just as many musical numbers as there are war crimes. Yet somehow, they manage to walk that tightrope with precision.
Prior to the film's digital release, Adil and Bilall talked with me about the depths of radicalisation, their research into ISIS, and why their governments wanted them to make this film. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CONNOR DALTON: Over the last few years, you've made a name for yourself in Hollywood. What made you want to pause your blockbuster work and tell this story?
BILALL FALLAH: It's a very personal story because around 2011, we saw a lot of young people leave [for] Syria that we knew [and] grew up with. I come from a city called Vilvoorde, and percentage-wise, the most young people that left [for] Syria came from my neighbourhood. So it was a real phenomenon. Then to see what happened in the Paris attacks in 2015 and the attacks in 2016 in Belgium was so shocking and sad to see because [the perpetrators] are like us. They are young Muslim guys that come from Belgium, and that's why we felt we had to tell this story in all [its] nuance and complexity. There is not a lot of TV shows or movies that are made from a Muslim perspective, and that's why we paused our blockbuster career and went back to making this kind of movie.
DALTON: How long had 'Rebel' been in the works?
ADIL EL ARBI: I would say since 2013. That's the first time we got the idea to do the project, which coincides with the guys we knew that went [to Syria]. And obviously, in the beginning of 2013, ISIS was not that [well-known] yet, so the script had to change constantly. According to the events in 2014, ISIS really became famous as this terrorist organisation, and after that, you had the attacks in Europe and all over the world. Then you had the rise and fall. That's why it took a while to get [this project going]. [We needed] historical perspective on those events.
DALTON: You must have done a lot of research for this film. What did that involve?
FALLAH: We did an extreme [amount] of research. It was non-stop. We talked with family members that had their kids leave [for] Syria. We had interviews with the mothers. There is a scene in the movie with the mothers - they are the real mothers. We talked with people that were in the war in Syria. We also saw all the propaganda movies of ISIS. [We] really analysed [them] in detail. Everything you see in the movie is based on real stories. That's why we composed this family of the mother and two brothers.
DALTON: I was fascinated by how your film portrays the methods of recruitment. Were you really wanting people to know how multifaceted it can be?
EL ARBI: Yes, because often in movies or TV shows about [this] subject matter, it would be very simplified. It would just be Islam radical; that's it, you're a terrorist. But the reality was much more perverse than that. It's a criminal organisation. It's a gang. They use this way of recruitment [which focuses on the] psychological. [It's] more than just the religion, and we really wanted to show the two aspects. [There's] the aspect of [some] people that went there - like some people that went to Ukraine - because they had an idealised view of heroism and what they might [be able to] do, and then, in the chaos of war, they get sucked into this mafia organisation. And then you got the other side of it, [which is] the brainwashing.
Lots of these young people lack not only a future perspective but a big brother figure, a father figure. Then somebody comes to them and says, "You're going to be a part of a family, you're going to be part of a group, and you will be accepted, and everybody that says that you're wrong, actually they are wrong! You are right!" That's a very perverse way of brainwashing that is also happening now with more and more far-right groups in Europe. [So] that was important to show that yes, it is the extreme version of Islam, it's fundamentalism, but it's not as simple as you might think, and it could happen with a lot of people you know.
DALTON: When you decided to make this film, did either of you have any fears about depicting a real militant group?
FALLAH: Yeah, there's been a lot of doubts throughout the years [as to whether] we made this movie or not because it felt really dangerous to do. It's like you're making a movie about the mafia. And certainly, because you know these people and grew up with these people. So there were a lot of times that we doubted making this movie, but the problem was we had to make it. We felt that we had to show our voice, and that's why we made it.
DALTON: With the subject matter being as intense as it is, was it difficult to get the film greenlit?
EL ARBI: Well, in Belgium, it went pretty okay because we had a pretty good track record with our, you would say, more difficult movies, whether it's 'Black' or 'Gangsta'. So they trusted us, and luckily, the Belgium and Flemish governments really wanted to support this kind of movie. And obviously, the fact that we already did our Hollywood projects like 'Ms. Marvel' and 'Bad Boys for Life', they wanted us back. But also, they saw this movie had a real indicative strength to it because [while you have] movies about World War II and the war on Vietnam, this is a movie about the war that happened here in Belgium. So there's also something for the young generations here in this country that they can watch and learn from.
The musical element was also very important because ISIS was against music, against instruments, and against female voices.
DALTON: The film's war zone sequences have such magnitude to them. What were the mechanics of crafting those set pieces?
EL ARBI: Well, we had a member of the Belgian Special Forces with us, [who] fought against ISIS in Iraq alongside the Kurdish Special Forces. So together with him and also the Jordanian Army, we designed those sequences because it was very important for us that it was as realistic as possible. Obviously, you don't have the means of a Hollywood project, so we had way less money and time, but we prepared as much as possible. And eventually, when it was time to do those scenes, it was like going to war. The big difference with Hollywood movies [is] you can spend days and days doing those scenes. Here, we only had one chance for every single shot. So it was pretty intense, but it all worked out.
DALTON: I was surprised to discover this film has several musical numbers. What was behind that choice?
FALLAH: We were thinking how can we tell this story, that's a difficult subject matter, to a wide audience. And we felt that a musical would be the right way to do it because, with a musical, you can bring the audience into this epic story. You can tell these complex emotions that you can sometimes not say in text. When people perform in words, it's not the same way you see in dance or music; you feel something bigger. The musical element was also very important because ISIS was against music, against instruments, and against female voices. So we thought if we want to make a real anti-ISIS movie, then music is the right [way] to do it.
DALTON: This is a very ambitious film. You tackle the horrors of war, the enslavement of women, radicalisation efforts, and how these groups operate and do so from multiple perspectives and timelines. How were you able to balance so many threads and themes?
EL ARBI: Our ambition was to make as complete a movie about this subject matter as possible because usually there are things that would bother us when we watch a movie [about this subject]. It's so complex, there are so many elements, there are so many details that [if] you highlight just one character or one story, it's going to simplify the whole thing. We wanted to go as total as possible to show that it started with a civil war, it started with protests, [and] it started with Assad. That's how it started, and then it evolved into what we then see with ISIS.
When we were writing the screenplay, the structure was one part the kids, one part the mum, and one part the older brother. Then eventually, when we shot [what felt like] three movies, together with our editor, Frédéric Thoraval, who just came off 'Promising Young Woman', we started to design the complexity of how we go from one story to the other to the other. And I think people that see this movie [will] have a behind-the-scenes feel of how it was - they'll [see it] as a historical movie.
DALTON: The ongoing situation in Syria is not explored in film often. What do you hope those who see the film can learn?
FALLAH: Well, I hope that when they see the movie, they see the complexity and see the nuances of how ISIS used Islam and how this all happens because, like Adil said, it's a historical document. This is a war movie that really happened in Europe. It never happened before, and we hope that it will never happen again by making this movie.
DALTON: Finally, it's been a whirlwind year for the two of you. You were an integral part of 'Ms. Marvel', there was the 'Batgirl' situation, and now 'Rebel' is being released after playing at Cannes. How was your 2022 upon reflection?
EL ARBI: It's been a rollercoaster! Crazy! All the emotions you can have in one year. It's as if [that] year [was] one month [laughs].
'Rebel' will be available on all digital platforms from the 18th of January.