November 7, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah
Arabic, French, Dutch and English with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Belgium and in Syria, from 2013 to 2016, the dramatic film “Rebel” features a predominantly Middle Eastern cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An amateur rapper in his 20s moves from Belgium to Syria to help war victims, but he is forced to join ISIS, while his adolescent brother is torn between obeying his mother’s wishes to be a good student in Belgium or running away to Syria to reunite with his brother.
Culture Audience: “Rebel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing somewhat unconventional dramas about families who have internal conflicts about controversial politics and terrorism.
“Rebel” is a gripping story about a family torn apart by political extremism. Although this 135-minute drama is a little too long and needed tighter film editing, the story and performances are worth watching. “Rebel” has some music-video-styled interludes (where people break into a hip-hop performance, including having backup dancers) that are very unusual for a film with this subject matter. Some viewers will appreciate the film for having this non-traditional approach. Other viewers will dislike these musical scenes for being too distracting or too disruptive to the movie’s serious tone.
Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Rebel” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. El Arbi, Fallah, Kevin Meul and Jan van Dyck co-wrote the “Rebel” screenplay. The movie alternates between showing the contrasting lives of two brothers and how their lives could be on a collision course to tragedy. “Rebel” is told in non-chronological order, but the movie shows the year in which a major scene is taking place.
When viewers first see 12-year-old Nassim Wasaki (played by Amir El Arbi), it’s 2015, and he thinks he is having a normal day at his school in the Brussels suburb of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (also known as Molenbeek), Belgium. Nassim is the son of a Moroccan immigrant named Leila Wasaki (played by Lubna Azabal), who is a single mother. On this particular day, Nassim is taken out of his classroom and sent to the school principal’s office, where a tearful Leila hugs him.
What’s the reason for this emergency visit? Leila’s older son Kamal Wasaki (played by Aboubakr Bensaihi) has been identified in the media as being part of a group of ISIS terrorists who were filmed on video executing people by shooting them. A TV news report says that Kamal was a local celebrity rapper using the stage name DJ Kawas, but he disappeared several months ago after drugs were found in his family’s garage.
Flashbacks show that Kamal had a history of getting in trouble with the law in Belgium, but this drug bust was the last straw for Leila, who told Kamal that he was no longer welcome in her home. Nassim, who has always looked up to Kamal, is devastated that Kamal has to move out of the family house. A homeless and aimless Kamal eventually met some people who convinced him to move to Syria to help war victims.
Kamal sees this relocation as an opportunity to turn his life around for the better, because he thinks he will be involved in a worthy charitable cause. Kamal finds out too late that he has really been recruited to join ISIS, along with several other young men from Syria and other countries. Kamal is forced into this ISIS recruitment program and is held captive, as he trains to be an ISIS soldier. Kamal eventually gets a new name while he is under ISIS control: Abu-Bakr Al-Belgik. A terrorist named Abu Amar (played by Younes Bouab) is also part of the story.
“Rebel” shows how the scandal of Kamal’s involvement with ISIS is processed differently by Leila and Nassim. Leila feels a lot of shame but also determination not to let Nassim fall prey to the same recruiters. Nassim has a childlike gullibility or ignorance in not fully understanding what Kamal is doing in Syria. Even though Nassim sees the news reports and videos on social media that show Nassim is now an ISIS soldier who kills people, in Nassim’s mind, he thinks that Kamal is helping people in Syria.
Meanwhile, Leila goes to support group meetings with other people whose loved ones have become lost in the grips of ISIS recruitment. Nassim slowly begins to see how Kamal’s activities are affecting their family’s reputation in Belgium. More people start to shun or avoid Nassim and Leila, who wants to protect Nassim from a lot of the trauma she is experiencing.
Nassim’s female classmate Hind (played by Malak Sebar) is his closest friend at school. At first, Hind is curious about Kamal and asks Nassim about him. Nassim tells her that Kamal is helping people in Syria. But when Hind’s parents find out that this is what Nassim thinks of Kamal, the parents greatly disapprove. Hind goes from not being allowed by her parents to sit next to Nassim on class, to not being allowed to hang out with him, to being pulled out of the school altogether, so Hind won’t have to see Nassim at all in school.
Meanwhile, an ISIS recruiter named Idriss (played by Fouad Hajji) has been hanging out at the schoolyard to talk to Nassim. It should come as no surprise that Idriss uses Nassim’s desperate desire to see Kamal as bait in these recruitment efforts. Idriss tells Nassim that Kamal very much wants to see Nassim, but that the only way is for Nassim to secretly go to Syria. Idriss says he will pay for the trip and be Nassim’s chaperone. The movie shows what Nassm’s decision is.
The middle section of “Rebel” tends to drag with repetitive scenes of shootouts and people being tortured. Viewers see that during this dark period in Kamal’s life, he found some brightness by meeting, falling in love with, and marrying a woman named Noor (played by Tara Abboud), who knows that Kamal is being forced to do ISIS activities. Kamal is faced with a moral dilemma when it comes to Noor, and his decision is the catalyst for many other things that happen in the story.
“Rebel” has good acting overall but not anything outstanding enough to get major awards. The movie has some visually ambitious and artistic scenes, but some of the narrative doesn’t flow very smoothly because of the way the movie’s non-chronological timeline has some jumbled editing. The last third of the movie is when “Rebel” is at its best in its intended emotional impact. Viewers who are patient enough to watch this entire movie might be left stunned by the outcome of events depicted in “Rebel.”
Yellow Veil Pictures released “Rebel” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023. The movie was released in Morocco and in parts of Europe and Asia in 2022.