Rebel Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah Go From Blockbusters to Their Most Personal Film Yet
Sep 19, 2023
Filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have had fascinating lives and careers. Sure, most directors begin with independent and short films, but these two have traveled the world — both in the quite literal geographic sense, and in the more figurative cinematic sense. The directors have gone from Morocco to Belgium to the United States, before heading to Cannes in France to unveil their latest film, Rebel.
Along the way, they made a couple of excellent, low-budget films in Belgium (Black and Gangsta) before becoming immersed in the world of massive blockbuster filmmaking (directing Bad Boys for Life and working on the films Beverly Hills Cops: Axel Foley and Batgirl). However, Rebel is undoubtedly their most personal film, what they describe as the culmination of their directorial achievements. It’s arguably their most powerful and accomplished film, an intense story of one Muslim family in Belgium that’s torn apart by the propagandistic efforts of ISIS.
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallahhave spoke with MovieWeb about Rebel, the personal influences surrounding it, and the nature of cinema itself. To be subjective for a moment, it must be said — these are two of the most thoughtful, deliberate, and brilliant filmmakers working today; their ability to craft both an audience-rousing action scene and the most heartbreaking, artistically stimulating moment you can imagine, is truly profound and largely unmatched.
You can read our interview with Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah below and watch the full interview above.
Rebel Is a Heavy Film That Had to Be Made
MovieWeb: This is a powerful, moving film. Were you prepared for the heaviness of it, and why did you feel compelled to tell this story just as you were becoming huge blockbuster filmmakers in Hollywood?
Adil El Arbi: It’s such a heavy subject that we experienced really firsthand, very close to us. And all these years that it was happening around us, we were all the time asking ourselves, “Why is this happening? How come so many young people of our generation, some people that we knew, went there to be part of this monstrosity that is ISIS and their attacks in Europe, and obviously all the war horrors that happened there?” It’s as if there were no words to express that.
Adil El Arbi: And that’s why all these years while we were writing the movie and prepping the movie, even though we were making Bad Boys, and we’re doing Miss Marvel, and it was like this. This is ball in our stomach that we felt like it needs to get out, we need to express that story. Because it’s our most personal and most important story that we have told.
Yellow Veil Pictures
Bilall Fallah: Yes, exactly what Adil said. For me, I come from a neighborhood where the highest percentage of young Muslims from Europe went to Syria, so to see these guys that are exactly like you, Moroccan Belgian Muslims, to see them go over there and see all that, see all the effects that happened in Belgium, France, around Europe, it’s just super painful to see.
Bilall Fallah: And we just wanted to show the real story, and that’s why we did the research for like eight years, to try to give the story all the complexities and the nuances, and to make it a real human story. And we never really saw that in movies or TV shows, where you have that Muslim perspective from the inside. And we felt that we have to make the story, even though it felt really dangerous to make that story, because we know these guys; it’s like you’re making a movie about the mafia. And so I had a lot of doubts about making it. We could have just kept making commercial, fun movies, but we felt like this is what we have to tell the world, because it affected not only the Muslim community but also the whole world. So it was a very important story to tell.
Working with Actual Victims of ISIS
Yellow Veil Pictures
MW: Have you had any feedback from friends or anyone who has been personally affected by ISIS? What do people tell you, who have been affected?
Adil El Arbi: I mean, there’s a scene with parents of people that went there, and that scene is actually not a fiction scene. It’s like a documentary. So those parents are real parents that really lost their sons who went to Syria, and they were not acting. They’re really like giving their testimonial. So obviously, when they saw the movie, it was very personal for them because they recognized the experience that their sons have in Syria and ISIS.
Adil El Arbi: But also a lot of people that were part of the movie, especially the scenes in Syria, they were really refugees there, were people that fled. Everybody had a story, basically — people that fled Syria and Hamas, either because of Assad or ISIS, people that fled Mosul and Iraq because of ISIS. There were people that really had that first-hand experience.
Adil El Arbi: And now the movie is being shown, it was recently shown in Beirut, in a refugee camp of all Syrian people, Syrian young girls, and when they saw those scenes — they experienced that. They fled the bombardment, they fled ISIS when it came to their city. It was powerful, but they really appreciated how authentic and real [it was], the way that we portray those scenes, and they say that it’s really the truth.
Related: Rebel Review: ISIS Destroys a Family in Emotionally Devastating Film
Is Propaganda Still Cinema?
Yellow Veil Pictures
MW: Your main character becomes a filmmaker for ISIS after they take over Syria. It’s fascinating to watch the cinematic ambitions and techniques on display here. Propaganda has always been an element of film, whether it’s the Soviets, Americans, or Germans. What interested you about propaganda and ISIS?
Adil El Arbi: It’s because it’s the first terrorist organization that used propaganda on that level. And it’s also the first terrorist organization to use social media to recruit as many young people over the world, as much as possible. So they were very savvy in using all the Hollywood techniques and video game techniques, and propaganda was really a weapon for them, the same way that the Nazis had propaganda as a weapon for their recruitment.
Adil El Arbi: And what’s crazy was, as we were researching it we saw that, you know, they really used all the elements, all the techniques that we are using in our movies. So they had a crew, they had tracks and steady cams, they had location scouting. It was really very crazy to see the thing that we do [becoming] very clinical and basically psychopathic, because they’re going to murder people.
Adil El Arbi: But they were on a high level of technicality and craft, but they used all that craft for terrorist attacks and terrorist actions in their movies, and we never saw that before in history. Usually before, they would film, but it was always very improvised. But these were not improvised, they were methodical and cold, and they just reached so many young people all over the world by making those Hollywood-like productions, and even video game-like. They would put Go-Pros on their AK-47s, which really mimics like the Call of Duty video games, and that’s how they recruited so many people, especially in Western Europe, because Western youth knows about all the movies, and that permitted them a connection.
Related: Batgirl Directors Discuss Cancellation of Their DC Movie Now They’ve Seen The Flash
MW: What’s the difference between propaganda and actual cinema?
Adil El Arbi: Well, that’s an exploration we wanted to do in this movie, and maybe also in our future projects. It’s like this fine line where, if you’re making cinema, you’re not doing a crime, I would say, you’re you’re really doing art. You’re trying to entertain people, to tell a story, to reach people on an emotional level. It’s an interesting thing, how cinema can be used, or filmmaking techniques can be used, for crime, for terrorism, for something evil.
Adil El Arbi: And I see that as an allegory of religion, basically. How religion can be good, because we’re Muslim, we’re religious, and we believe in the power and the love that Islam can spread and the peaceful aspect of it. But it can be misused to do horrible things, and abused to do horrible things […] Our tribe is the Muslim tribe, and our tribe is also the filmmaking tribe. And that’s how they perverted all those filmmaking aspects. And that’s why I want to try to make a parallel of those two things.
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah Get Musical
Yellow Veil Pictures
MW: Rebel features some gorgeous but unexpected musical sequences. Why was it important for you to include this stylistic choice in an otherwise gritty and harrowing film?
Bilall Fallah: Music reaches people on another level. Certainly if you talk about the Syrian conflict and the emotions that are there, and the pain, it’s sometimes really difficult to make a translation in a film scene. So by making music, it really allows you to go on another level and understand something that’s unexplainable, and it’s same thing with both poetry.
Bilall Fallah:Because ISIS really rejected music and rejected female singing and instruments, we felt like the best way to do an anti-ISIS movie is to make it a musical, and really show what our culture is. It’s filled with music and poetry and wisdom and knowledge, and ISIS is against all of that, so that’s why we felt like that’s the way to go inside the mind of our characters, and make the people feel what they are going through.
Oh, you feel what the characters are going through in Rebel. You feel it in your heart, your ears, your feet, your soul. The result is one of the most powerful films of the year. From Yellow Veil Pictures, Rebel is now in theaters.
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