'Layla M': Inside the Experience of a Female Radical Islamist

Why would a young, liberal, highly-educated woman join a radical Islamist cell? 

In many ways, Layla M. is one of the most important films out of TIFF 2016. As Islamophobia reaches a fever pitch across Europe and America, we need to take every opportunity to understand the common Muslim experience. Cinema, with its seemingly infinite potential for empathy and pervasiveness across cultures, may be one of the direct routes to this goal. 

But is it possible to empathize with a would-be terrorist?

That's what veteran Dutch director Mijke de Jong and her husband, screenwriter Jan Eilander, have tried to accomplish with Layla M. The film is a case study in the origins of radicalism, following its titular protagonist (Nora El Koussour) through disillusionment with her moderate Muslim parents, who would very much like to see Layla assimilate into Dutch society and become a renowned doctor. Layla, however, has other plans.

As she begins to further explore her Muslim background—at first, in a pointed act of defiance against her parents' ideals—a positive feedback loop ensues. She feels more and more ostracized by society. Donning a burqa in public, she is discriminated against and heckled. Desperately seeking identity and community, and caught between two worlds, Layla finds herself fraternizing with a local radical group. Its women, called the Sisters, meet regularly to discuss ways in which they can fight repression.

"It was very intense. We had to talk to each other and say, 'This is a role; don't take it too seriously.'"

That's when Layla meets Abdel (Ilias Addab). Through clandestine Skype sessions, Layla plans to elope to Amman, Jordan with her future husband, a committed radical, to live a provincial life that adheres to the tenets of Islam. But it's not the reality she bargained for. In fact, she's unwittingly opted to marry into ISIS. The religious freedom she sought is supplanted by misogyny; in the cell, Layla has no identity save for that as a subservient wife. Though she comes to love her husband, he represses her spirit. Even worse, he is training to make a fatal sacrifice. Layla is free in neither her previous life nor her new one.

No Film School sat down with de Jong and Eilander in Toronto to discuss their extensive research into the world of jihadism, working with a non-actor to play a very complex and emotional role, the implications of surrounding oneself with hate, and more.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB0gDLnuI9c

No Film School: What drew you to exploring jihadism? 

Mijke de Jong: We wanted to look at how life is for our Moroccan neighbors. Also, activism, religion, and love are subjects I'm really interested in. I think it's the same for you.

Jan Eilander: Oh, I'm very interested in love. [laughs] We are really worried about Dutch society, and European society. There is a division between the Muslims and the non-Muslims, and there is a very strong right-wing movement in Europe going on, maybe also in the United States. Everybody, I think, judges Moroccan people as, "Well, they're Muslims, so they're jihadists and they belong to IS," and we wanted to make a statement that they're people like us. So it was very important that Layla M. has a Moroccan backgroundher parents are Moroccanbut she was born and raised in Amsterdam. She's just like us. For example, white kidsthey fight their parents. She's also fighting her parents, and maybe she even uses religion to fight with her parents.

In Europe, they make almost monsters of those people, and so it's crazy that everybody who's wearing a hijab has to say, "Oh no, I don't belong to IS." They have to defend themselves.

Jong: It's also a film about finding your own identity, and that's very universal. I hope that if you're a young American woman, and you want to go to Syria, for example, that Layla M. can be a role model for "don't go." I also hope that, for example, white people from Holland think, "She could be my daughter." 

"We all had our nervous breakdowns."

NFS: That was one of the most compelling elements of the film for me, that it was more about identity than it was about radicalism. I guess the two are sort of inextricable. I did feel like, at times, she was just trying to defy her parents, and using radicalism as an excuse. And then at other times, she was grasping, just like any teenager, for who she really wasin romance, in religion. Did you have to do a lot of research to get into her world, or did you already have access to it? 

Jong: We already had access, because I made a film before that was also in that subculture. We already knew some girls with the same story as Layla, but time was the most important thing. Just to trust each other. It's also underground, so because of that, we needed a lot of time to budget, to get comfortable together. For example, I went with the actress to a lot of meetings with the Sisters. The Sisters you see in the movie are not actors. They are real Sisters. So it was very good for Nora to become familiar with the little detailswhat do you drink, what do you eat, how do you wear your scarf, things like that.

Credit: TIFF 2016

NFS: There are some strong feminist undercurrents in the film. How did you incorporate elements of liberalism into the fabric of this script?

Eilander: We started with an idea of making this film about a girl who radicalizes, but for us, it was also very important that there was a love story in it. We always called it the Bonnie and Clyde element. For example, I think the dancing scene is almost the heart of the film—one of the most important scenes—because you can see that [Layla and her husband] really love each other.

For us, it was very important that Layla—although she's brown, although she has a Moroccan background—that she's like us. Everybody is like us. Ultimately, we're all the same. So we wanted to have her pretty highly educated. We wanted to have her parents be very liberal and assimilated. They do their utmost to be part of society. She when she does radicalize and fight her parents it's because she doesn't want to be part of Dutch society.

Jong: There are a lot of girls like Layla in Holland. High educated, very strong feminist women there. So it's really based on reality.

"In two days, we had 50,000 views. We didn't know that before, but Moroccan girls are longing for a film like this."

Eilander: Two days ago, our Dutch distributor put the trailer on the internet, and it's unbelievable, but it went viral. All the Moroccan girls want to see it. In two days, we had 50,000 views. We didn't know that before, but [Moroccan girls are] longing for a film like this. They're proud of it.

Jong: Sometimes we wrote things in the script, and I would say, "That's too Dutch. Moroccan girls are not like this." And then we discussed it, and then the further we were with the research, we realized that Layla is caught in between her Sisters [and liberalism].

Eilander: She's an outsider. She's an outsider in every world because she's such a strong personality.

Credit: TIFF 2016

Jong: In the first part of the research, I wanted to be very politically correct, and then, when I knew more about the Sisters, I could go a little bit further. Of course, it makes the film much more interesting because of that.

NFS: Yeah, it's more complex when you push the boundary.

Eilander: And more honest.

Jong: More layered, as well. It's all about the layers.

NFS: What do you think surprised both of you about digging into this world that you didn't expect to find?

Eilander: I wasn't there when they were shooting, but [Mijke] was very upset about working with hate.

Jong: Yeah, it was a very difficult thing for me. But also for the actors, because they're both believers. [The actors who play Layla and Ilias] both believe in Allah, but we had to go into that radical part. It affects you if you feed yourself with hate, so that was really difficult. 

NFS: Hate's kind of like anger in that it feeds on itself.

Jong: Yeah, so we all had our nervous breakdowns, but then we worked together for years. It was very intense. We had to talk to each other and say, "This is a role; don't take it too seriously." For [the actors], this touched something inside their identity, because they're also young, and they have to find their own identity. When we shot the jihadist process scenes, they were almost crying: "Oh, shit, what's going to happen in the world?"

Credit: TIFF 2016

NFS: How did you find Nora? She carries the film.

Eilander: She's incredible, huh?

Jong: It's her first film. There are not so many Moroccan girls of that age in Holland, so we saw them all. She was really, really, really nervous. She is Layla, but she couldn't show it because she was so nervous. After the third [round of casting], she didn't do her screen test very well. Then I asked her to sing a religious song. She starts singing... it was so completely emotional. I was like, "Wow, if she can do this, then we can do this together." And so we decided.

Eilander: That was very interesting, though, to see how close Mijke and Nora got. Now, you sometimes say it feels like [she's] your daughter.

NFS: Was it a process? Did she stay nervous throughout the beginning of the shoot, and you had to coax her into being more comfortable with the character?

Jong: Yeah, yeah. First, in the rehearsal, she didn't trust herself. She went in her head and was not in the moment. 

Eilander: There were some moments that she said to you, "Sometimes I like Layla even better than I like myself," because she was so shy. Because Layla is a kind of a daredevil. She takes risks.

Jong: [Nora] is in film school now.

Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: I'd say most people have a very black and white view of radicalism. If there was one thing that you could tell people to open up their mind a little bit— because you've had access to this world, and you've spent so much time trying to understand it a little bit better—what would you tell them?

Eilander: Just to have a good look at your neighbor, and see: does he fit in the cliché image you've got of your Muslim neighbors, or are they just human beings like we all are? I think that's the main thing. That's also the reason why Layla is playing football with the kids in the refugee camp. That's the moment you see, well, this girl belongs in the refugee camp—but belongs there as Layla, not as a member of a radical movement. That's the moment that you understand that she doesn't belong with Abdel, although she truly loves him.

We shouldn't put girls like Layla in jail, because they tried to find their way, and they saw that it was a dead-end street. They came back. Give them another opportunity. With girls like Layla, sometimes it happens that they're imprisoned for eight months or even longer, and only because they might be involved in some terrorist activities. You look at her, and you see this girl, and you think, "What the fuck? Give her a second, a third, a fourth chance," because people like Layla should be very important in Dutch society.

Jong: [I also want the] audience to pose questions to themselves. You cannot just say, "these people." No, it has everything to do with all of us.

See all of our coverage of TIFF 2016.

Your Comment


The word "Jihad" and "Jihadism" are always used out of context as to mean terrorism. Hollywood is one of the culprits of misrepresenting Islam and Muslims as screaming kaffieyeh wearing maniacs.

"Jihad" in Arabic means to struggle in the name of God. Allah simply means God, everybody's God. To get up in the morning to feed your family is Jihad, giving to the poor and needy is Jihad and the right to self defence is Jihad.

Maniacs like ISIS do not represent 1.6 billion Muslims. I suggest that if one wants to research or learn about Islam then to talk to practicing Muslims.

September 21, 2016 at 10:30PM

Roshdi Alkadri
Director / Sound & Video Editor / Camera OP

I completely agree. I am of Muslim culture, but there are Jews, Christians, other religions and non-religious people, all united by the same interests here, all of us subjected to unrelenting propaganda in our countries, East or West. So the trips and switches of our various cultural or political references should not stand in the way of the quest to find our individual voices and expressing and sharing these with each other.

For example, I was not necessarily in sympathy with the Syrian film-makers in the recent NFS article, but to say so might give a different meaning to the reader than the one intended by myself. I know most people have really good intentions, so I give latitude to NFS being a US-centric site, even if I "disagree" with some things.

Conversely, Jihad is cool - harming people is not cool, so there is a challenge to bridge our understandings, and the medium of film-making particularly makes that a very exciting challenge indeed.

September 22, 2016 at 3:30AM, Edited September 22, 4:27AM

Saied M.

What term would you prefer to use in lieu of "jihadism"? I am open to changing language. I agree that the West has appropriated some Muslim terminology and now widely uses it in the media in ways that may be inaccurate. Let me know!

September 22, 2016 at 8:39AM

Emily Buder

A very gracious answer, but which opens a can of worms, which you or NFS shouldn't have to carry alone. From my view, terms change depending on which terrorists the main media are pushing, eg the same types responsible for 9/11 were called Islamic Freedom Fighters when fighting the Russians, and today we see an entirely artificial distinction between ISIS and "moderate rebels". Anyone that doesn't fit a narrative is relegated to a "militant". I don't think there is a general sense of perspective or scale. The short answer to your question would be the term "terrorism", which still opens a can of worms.

An interesting topic, but I won't push it and certainly don't want to inadvertently offend anyone. I consider everyone here to be a friend.

September 22, 2016 at 9:12AM, Edited September 22, 9:55AM

Saied M.

Can I just add that from a film culture point of view, glance at the plot of Rambo III, in which our hero bonds with armed Islamic groups against the Russians who are depicted as the barbarous pantomime villains. Also, I seem to remember a Bond film where Bond himself detonates "One for the Mujahideen". There is much hokum and entertainment to glean from these films, but the contrast with the current climate is interesting nevertheless.

September 22, 2016 at 9:19AM, Edited September 22, 10:03AM

Saied M.

Thank you so much for your insight and perspective. I will change the term to "terrorist." This is indeed an ongoing discussion, and I am glad you spoke up (and graciously, to boot)!

September 22, 2016 at 10:50AM

Emily Buder

ahhh...so there is a movie/film world beyond the realms of Hollywood fantasies. Good posting. Please post more like this.

September 22, 2016 at 5:01AM

Tom Brown