'Escape from Raqqa' ('Exfiltres'): Film Review

Pascal Chantier/Epithete Films
Engrossing and timely.

Emmanuel Hamon's debut feature is based on the true story of a French woman who became a captive of ISIS.

A gripping contemporary thriller set partially inside the Islamic State, Escape from Raqqa (Exfiltrés) marks a promising feature debut for assistant director and documentary filmmaker Emmanuel Hamon. Based on the true story of a French woman who voluntarily took her child to Syria and wound up a prisoner in the titular ISIS stronghold, this well paced fictional account sometimes creeps into movie-of-the-week territory but mostly remains a compelling look at one of the modern world’s most notoriously violent regimes. After a mid-sized release in France from 20th Century Fox, the film could find wider exposure in scattered art houses and on streaming sites.

Constantly switching viewpoints between Faustine (Jisca Kalvanda) — a French mother of African origin caught in Raqqa when it was still controlled by ISIS in 2015 — and the two men hoping to exfiltrate her back home, the movie jumps between its various protagonists and locations with plenty of nail-biting suspense, never really slowing down until it reaches the finish line at CDG airport. Along the way, the viewer gets an incredibly grim look at life behind ISIS’s borders, where disloyal men could be executed at will and women forced into lives of servitude at the hands of the jihadi.

What initially drives Faustine, a recent convert to Islam, to take her five-year-old son Noah (Ethan Palisson) into Syria is the promise of aiding victims of the long war against Bashar al-Assad. Instead, she gets ensnared by a handful of French friends who have become obedient ISIS fighters, forcing her to don a burka and remain behind closed doors when she’s not slaving away at an understaffed nursery.

Back in France, Faustine’s husband, Sylvain (Swann Arlaud), realizes that his wife and son are not away on a purported two-week vacation but caught somewhere in Syria. To get them back, he enlists the help of Patrice (Charles Berling), a doctor in the hospital where he works and whose own son, Gabriel (Finnegan Oldfield), is an NGO fixer based in Turkey. The latter teams up with Adnan (Kassem Al Khoja), a young activist who fled his home city of Raqqa to France with Gabriel’s help, and who has mixed feelings about assisting a woman who voluntarily joined ISIS.

Hamon, who penned the script with TV writer Benjamin Dupas (Call My Agent), does a good job establishing the different conflicts and characters throughout the film’s first half, showing how everyone is caught in the upheaval caused by the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS. Not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but with a grittier tone closer to the work of Paul Greengrass, the film has a tense you-are-there quality served by Hamon’s background making documentaries and the vibrant location shooting in Jordan.

Once the plan is hatched, Escape from Raqqa jumps between Faustine and Noah trying to flee a city under strict martial law, and the handful of men helping them from France. The tension stays high until the last shot, although the constant cutting between characters also means that they are never explored with particular depth — and, in the case of Faustine, can remain somewhat elusive. The only exceptions are perhaps Gabriel and Adnan, whose relationship as two young men from different backgrounds, but who share similar ideals, makes for an interesting dynamic.

The lack of characterization can also give the movie a didactic feel at times, as if the filmmakers were proving a point instead of telling a good story. (The point being that ISIS is awful and the French authorities completely unhelpful in such situations.) But the strong performances, especially from Oldfield (Nocturama) and Arlaud (Bloody Milk), keep you engrossed throughout, while arresting lensing from Thomas Bataille and sharp cutting from Yorgos Lamprinos (Custody) make this more than just a mere reproduction of a harrowing event, but rather an extremely vivid look at a time, and especially a place, that all those involved would most likely wish to forget.

Production company: Epithete Films
Cast: Swann Arlaud, Finnegan Oldfield, Jisca Kalvanda, Charles Berling, Kassem Al Khoja
Director: Emmanuel Hamon
Screenwriters: Emmanuel Hamon, Benjamin Dupas
Producers: Frederic Brillion, Gilles Legrand
Executive producers: Rula Nasser
Director of photography: Thomas Bataille
Production designer: Pascale Consigny
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Editor: Yorgos Lamprinos
Composer: Armand Amar
Sales: Playtime

In French, Arabic, English
103 minutes