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CANNES 2022 Midnight Screenings

Review: Rebel

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- CANNES 2022: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s audacious action film, about brothers going to Syria and being forced to fight for ISIS, is a fierce attack on the senses

Review: Rebel

Rebel [+see also:
interview: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fal…
film profile
]
may be the most challenging film at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Playing as a Midnight Screening, the movie asks the audience to sympathise and empathise with two brothers from Belgium who sign up to fight for ISIS in Syria. It does this by showing how the young men are cajoled into fighting for the group by outside pressures before they realise their mistake by coming to the war zone. The brothers witness the brutality of what is happening on the ground, and their hatred for ISIS grows, even though, to the outside world, they seem to be fighting for the group. Despite the fact that they are innocent people brought into the fight, some of their actions will make people’s blood boil, and this makes them anti-heroes that are hard to forgive or to like. While this plot is already a challenge to the senses, Rebel is also formally challenging because of sequences such as one when it turns into a rap musical with singing and dancing on screen, with choreography staged by world-famous artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

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Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are directors who are always willing to crank the action up to 11, pushing their characters to extremes in the situations they find themselves in and in their responses to these external pressures. Since their breakthrough with their second film, 2015's Black [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fal…
interview: Martha Canga Antonio
film profile
]
, the co-directors have had a meteoric rise, including going to Hollywood and making Bad Boys for Life. They bring all their skills as filmmakers and storytellers to this picture, especially when creating action sequences on a lowish budget.

It's an assault on the senses, with the action moving along at a riotous pace designed to disorientate and cajole the viewer. There is enough plot to fill out a series. Yet at its heart, this is the story of a family torn apart by caring too much about the world and each other. It's love, not hate, that lands them in trouble. In making this the reason for the brothers to go to Syria, it manages to elicit sympathy for characters committing heinous atrocities. They are as much anti-heroes as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle.

In terms of its structure, the film starts with news stories from Syria before pulling us into Molenbeek, the area of Belgium populated by immigrants that became world-renowned as a recruitment site for ISIS. There, we find Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi), who lives with his younger brother Nassim (Amir El Arbi) and their mother, Leila (Lubna Azabal). It feels like social realism until Kamal suddenly bursts into a rap song and a dance routine that would make Danny Glover proud. It's the first suggestion that this movie will be unlike any Syrian war movie we have seen before. Kamal goes to Syria to help war victims, where he's forced to join a militia, and he tries to avoid conflict by making videos for their social-media channels. At home, his younger brother is ostracised by his classmates, making him easy prey for the local recruitment agents. In a unique and surprising turn of events, it's left to the mother, Leila, to save the day.

It's a movie that must be seen to be believed. This fascinating work proves why it's essential for cinema to have a diverse range of voices telling the stories, and that’s what brings about these incredible shocks and surprises.

Rebel was produced by Belgium’s Caviar Films, Luxembourg’s Calach Films, France’s Le Collectif64 and Belgium’s Beluga Tree. Its international sales have been entrusted to Wild Bunch.

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