Oscars: A Female Muslim Teen Becomes Radicalized in the Netherlands' 'Layla M.'

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'Layla M.'

Director Mijke de Jong says the biggest challenge of her timely drama was crafting a character who follows her jihadist husband to Syria in service of radical Islam — but is still a likeable protagonist.

A radicalized jihadi bride is not likely to be the most sympathetic of protagonists. But in the Netherlands’ Oscar entry Layla M., director Mijke de Jong succeeds in showing the human being, both lovable and deeply flawed, behind the reviled caricature.

The film follows Layla (newcomer Nora El Koussour), a smart, sharp-tongued 18-year-old of Moroccan descent who was born and raised in Amsterdam. Her family is thoroughly assimilated into Dutch culture, even speaking Dutch at home. But Layla is increasingly hurt and enraged by the discrimination she sees against her fellow Muslims in Dutch society. Like many teenagers, she is angry — angry with her family, angry with society — but the intensity of her emotion pushes her toward militant Islam and into a abusive marriage with a charming young radical named Abdel (Ilias Addab), leading her down a path she ultimately realizes is not for her. Whether society can forgive her choices, however, is another question.

Ensuring that Layla was likable was her biggest challenge, says de Jong, which made casting the multilayered role especially difficult.

“Even if you don’t agree with her, you always have to love her at the end, so that was the reason I chose Nora for this role,” de Jong says. “I think I saw every Moroccan [actress] in Holland and Belgium, and the first time I met Nora, she had such charisma. It was important because we really wanted to show the human — in everyone there’s a human, and she is just a girl like I was at that age, with anger and love.”

De Jong had been planning to make a movie about her own youth in Amsterdam, when she was active in the Dutch squatters movement, which began with a housing shortage in the 1960s and saw many young people protest by squatting in buildings intentionally kept vacant by their owners in order to drive up prices. But by chance, de Jong met a young Dutch woman who had converted to Islam and whose story was so compelling that she decided that hers was the story she wanted to tell instead.  

“I think it’s for me it’s really important to make films in the now,” de Jong says, “and then I met her and the connection was something uncommon.”

The young woman had been married to a devout Moroccan man, and the two were very much in love and would occasionally visit Morocco, explains Jan Eilander, de Jong’s frequent collaborator and co-writer. But on one particular trip, he left her alone with his family, and after three weeks he came back wearing western dress and with his beard completely shaved, as if in preparation for a suicide mission (all of which is portrayed in the film).

“She thought, ‘Oh my god, what was going on?’” and worried that he had become “like (9/11 hijacker) Mohamed Ata and was going to go blow something up,” Eilander explains. “Finally she divorced from him and she never saw him again.”

To understand why an intelligent young woman would follow such a path, even if she turns back at the end, de Jong and El Koussour, who is Muslim, joined the young Dutch woman at gatherings with her “sister group.” An informal, mosque-affiliated social club where Muslim women hang out and support each other, the group included both mainstream and radicalized Muslims. A den mother of sorts watched over them, trying to keep them out of trouble and discouraging those who might be tempted to radicalize or follow their fighter husbands to Syria.

The radicalized women didn’t want to talk to de Jong, but she was eventually able to gain the trust of the others and even included some of them in the film as actors.

“You really can understand why the sister groups are so close … some of them have little babies, and they help each other with everything. They talk about the Koran and about religion, and they eat together and chat together,” de Jong says. “For me also it was very important for the actors to go into that world, but it was also a big responsibility and it was very tough. They had to fill themselves with hate. They watched beheading films. It was horrible.”

Meanwhile, Addab, who is a mainstream Muslim and dresses as a westerner, was also caught up in the tension between Islam and secular Dutch society. He was growing out his beard in order to play the role of Abdel, and as he began to look more Muslim, public buses ceased to stop for him on the streets of Amsterdam. So he started wearing caps.

“At least maybe they’ll think I’m a hipster and not a jihadi,” Addab told Eilander.

Lest there be any confusion, de Jong and Eilander oppose militant Islam. There are true jihadi characters in the film, and their motives are unambiguously evil.

“I think the reason that (the film has not been judged as being too sympathetic to militant Islam) is because we really show the bad fighters,” de Jong says. “We show them, and we show this is really a problem.”

And critically, she adds, because the film “was made with love and compassion.”

Layla M. has been surprisingly popular in the Netherlands, and it has inspired a lively conversation about discrimination, the tenets of Islam and the role of women in the religion. Audiences of Muslim women have been enthusiastic and vocal, Eilander says, cheering for Layla as she does things like dance, which fundamentalist Islam forbids.

At a screening in Belgium, de Jong says, “there was a guy who said, ‘I really like this (movie), but I couldn’t show it to my father because of the dancing scene.’ And then a woman stood up and said, ‘Come on coward, go show it to your father. This is how people act when they’re in love.’”

At a screening in a heavily Moroccan neighborhood in Amsterdam, “there were also some very strong Salafistic guys,” Eilander recalls. “And they were very angry, two or three of them, and they said, ‘It’s all about sex, and the main character is a whore because she kisses another man.’”

But the women present fought back. “They go, ‘We don’t like this,’ and kicked them out. It was very good,”says Eilander.

The film also provoked a fascinating exchange on Dutch television, when de Jong and El Koussour were guests on a daytime talk show. The panel included a supporter of the Dutch right-wing nationalist Party for Freedom, whose leader Geert Vilders in 2014 asked a crowd of supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. (“Fewer! Fewer!” they responded.) El Koussour explained that seeing that was the first time she realized she wasn’t Dutch and that such people didn’t like her. The man on the panel was touched by her statement.

“He was very shocked,” Eilander recalls. “And he said, ‘This is so horrible. You have made me realize that this might be what’s happening to people.’”

De Jong and Eilander are deeply proud of the conversation the film is provoking.

“That’s a reward from this movie, that people are willing to see it and think about how they should react to their neighbors wearing [head-]scarves and people like that,” de Jong says. “The main reason we made this film was because we wanted to go against populism, against polarization, and try to find some understanding between [groups].”

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