Ain’t nothing like a bit of good old fashioned teen rebellion. In the ‘annoying your parents’ stakes, you can’t beat cool classics like dyeing your hair a weird colour, or getting a tattoo, or listening to really angry punk music, or staying out past curfew, or declaring international jihad on corrupt imperialist kuffar pigdogs or …wait, that last one’s not cool at all.
Yet, this is the path that pissed off Dutch teenager Layla (Nora El Koussour) walks in Mijke de Jong’s Layla M, a smart and timely film about radicalization. We’re introduced to Layla as she angrily disputes a decision in a local soccer game, obviously relishing the conflict. Soon after we see a snapshot of the casual racism she’s apparently expected to tolerate everyday.
Layla’s family, of Moroccan birth, have a relatively laissez-faire approach to Islam; attending mosque but preferring to take the path of least resistance in their day-to-day lives. Frustrated and dismayed by their tacit acceptance of racism and lack of empathy for bombed out Syrians, Layla throws herself into Islamic studies, parrots quotes from the Qu’ran, befriends fundamentalist political agitators and coos over ‘last will’ videos of now deceased suicide bombers.
Before long she’s hooked up with the similarly committed Abdel (Ilias Addab) and the two escape Amsterdam for Amman, Jordan. Her new life turns out to be one of isolation and boredom: she’s forbidden to leave home without a male escort, any attempt at conversation met by glares and her husband is embarrassed by his outspoken wife. Disillusion sets in as Layla realizes that a life of complete subservience to angry looking bearded men isn’t quite the hegemony bustin’ thrill ride she was hoping for.
Layla M is conscious of its own importance, eager to impress upon audiences that simply branding terrorists as inhuman monsters does little good in diagnosing why they’re blowing themselves up. Ambitiously, the film seeks an explanation of precisely why an individual transforms from culturally integration to plotting terrorist acts. De Jong’s hypothesis (borne out by evidence) is that it’s a series of small decisions and micro-rebellions that snowballs towards extreme behaviour. After all, nobody wakes up and joins ISIS on a whim.
Nora El Koussour’s Layla is the vehicle for this argument and an alternately fascinating and frustrating protagonist. She’s right about so much; standing up to oppression, critiquing society and displaying empathy with innocent victims of war. She can also be an enormous pain in the ass, monotonously quoting the Qu’ran and donning a burka primarily to score political points against her dismayed family.
By the time she arrives in Amman I was eager to see the penny drop. De Jong makes sure that Layla is personally responsible for her choices, so the various indignancies she’s subjected to feel like a warped form of karma. As she stares out over a dusty, half-ruined urban hell, miserable at her lack of rights, agency and dignity, you hope she’s pondering whether maybe hitching her fierce sense of injustice to fanatical religious fundamentalism wasn’t the smartest move.
De Jong fills in the edges of her story with well-fleshed out secondary characters. Layla’s boyfriend/husband Abdel ends up with a quiet complexity, trying to cope as best he can with devout Islam. At one point Layla puts on a radio and dances. Abdel feebly points out that this is haram, but seconds later he’s up and dancing too. Later we see him struggling with peer pressure from his fellow jihadists,wrestling with self-loathing as he violently disciplines Layla.
We also get tantalizing glimpses at incidental figures who seem like warped reflections of our lead – most notably a chirpy German woman living in cosy captivity in Amman. Who is she? How did she get here? What happened to her? All questions that go unanswered.
These dangling loose ends are what’s stayed with me about Layla M, and they’re all too appropriate for a film about a developing situation. Though Layla herself reaches a fuzzy narrative terminus, the real men and women who walk the same path as her are on an as-yet uncertain trajectory. De Jong’s film ultimately raises more questions than it answers, but it’s compelling viewing for anyone curious as to why jihadism appeals to disillusioned young people.
Whip-smart and astonishingly empathic, Layla M is a convincing hypothesis on the attractions and illusions of Islamic terrorism.