When she realizes that her city, Amsterdam, isn’t as open and welcoming to her and her religion as it should be, a Muslim girl of Dutch-Moroccan origins becomes infatuated with the idea of going to the Middle East in Layla M., an earnest and well-meaning drama from Dutch distaff director Mijke de Jong (Frailer).
Topical and even-handed, the film benefits from an appealing lead performance from newcomer Nora El Koussour and has the prerequisite handheld camerawork that imbues the proceedings with both uncertainty and immediacy. But in terms of its narrative, the feature contains nary a surprise and with similar dramas — including French Locarno Piazza Grande title Heaven Can Wait — appearing simultaneously, this’ll have a hard time getting noticed internationally.
A well-meaning look at a thorny subject.
After its world premiere in Toronto’s Platform section, this will travel to other festivals because of its topicality but theatrical action beyond the Benelux and perhaps co-producing Germany will be limited.
From the moment Layla (El Koussour) first appears, it’s clear she’s a firebrand who will stand up for what she believes is right, whether it’s calling out a referee during a soccer game or a being photographed for a flyer that protests the Netherlands’ burqa ban. Her parents — and, as far as one can tell, her sketchily developed brother, Younes — are loving and well integrated into Dutch society, though Layla starts to realize that either they have decided to simply ignore the casual racism and signs of general indifference around them or, worse, they don’t actually seem to notice it. The atrocities in Muslim countries such as Syria seem of less concern to them than Layla’s upcoming exams, which stars to gnaw at the idealistic young woman, who sees things from a different perspective and who, in an act of protest, simply marches out of her exams.
Her tangible frustration leads Layla to become more religious and also leads her into the arms of Abdel (Ilias Addab), whom she chats with on Skype and who promises he’ll be a good Muslim husband. About halfway in, the two are married, unbeknownst to Layla’s parents, and not much later Abdel takes her to Belgium, to a jihadist training camp, and finally to the Middle East. De Jong has a good eye for scenes that emphasize the normality of much of what Layla is going through, like when she gets into a heated discussion with a classmate who asks her to stop praying or when she dances with Abdel in a Spartan motel room.
Like in the director’s other films with female protagonists struggling with the harsh world around them, such as Bluebird andKatia’s Sister, these scenes of everyday life manage to telegraph the titular protagonist’s feelings clearly, even though there might be no dialogue or what is being said might be the opposite of the characters are trying to say.
But de Jong isn’t much of an action director — a melee during a soccer match is risibly staged — and the film paints itself into a corner when it gets to the Middle East. Cloistered and excluded from all the decision making that Abdel and his friends do surrounding possible actions to make a difference in Syria or elsewhere, Layla slowly realizes that she doesn’t want to be a submissive wife to a dominant, all-deciding husband who doesn’t even allow her to go out onto the street unaccompanied to walk to the mosque around the corner.
However, it seems very unlikely that someone as intelligent as Layla would’ve been totally unaware of the position of women in some Islamic countries, especially since most of the criticism in countries like the Netherlands focuses on exactly that (which feeds directly into things such as the absurd paradox that is the burqa ban). The film never addresses how Layla initially thinks she’ll overcome or address this other than through her youthful ignorance, which makes her character one with a few too many contradictions, since she’s portrayed as the start as someone who explicitly thinks for herself and who rallies behind causes important to her.
The screenplay, by regular collaborator Jan Eilander and the director, also shies away from much direct conflict between Layla and Abdel, perhaps in an attempt not to vilify him too much. But this quest for a balanced look at “real people” also leave the film without any real conflict in the story’s second half and though El Koussour is an appealing presence, her character’s conflicting feelings in part two remain too often unspoken and interior, which causes a notable dip in energy.
The feature’s blue-tinted, handheld cinematography feels like a logical but also very safe choice. Beyond the rather obvious idea that the movement of the camera suggests Layla’s agitation and uncertainty, there’s no attempt to translate the character’s psychology visually. Location work in Jordan, however, is excellent, focusing not on the exotic locale’s touristy side but only the few nondescript locations — a visit to a refugee camp excepted — to which Layla finds herself confined.
The title, which only uses the first letter rather than Layla’s full last name, comes from a practice in news reporting that’s used to (partially) protect the identity of potential criminals. This sends a rather odd mixed message: Does de Jong see her protagonist that way too?
Production companies: Topkapi Films, NTR, Menuet, Chromosom Film, Schiwago Film, The Imaginarium Films
Cast: Nora El Koussour, Ilias Addab
Director: Mijke de Jong
Screenplay: Jan Eilander, Mijke de Jong
Producers: Frans van Gestel, Arnold Heslenfeld, Laurette Schillings
Director of photography: Danny Elsen
Production designer: Jorien Sont
Costume designer: Jacqueline Steijlen
Editor: Dorith Vinken
Music: Can Erdogan
Casting: Rebecca van Unen
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 98 minutes