Layla M. was perhaps the most topical film to appear in the London Film Festival in 2016. It tells the tale of a young Moroccan-Dutch woman who becomes ‘radicalised’ and travels to an unnamed Arab country to support her husband. It’s a film I find difficult to write about. During the film I was caught up in Layla’s anger and commitment but afterwards I wondered about her single-mindedness and whether she was sensitive to other voices. In the Q&A that followed the screening, I was aware of being pulled in different directions (see below). It is a tribute to the skill of director Mijke de Jong and her leading actor Nora el Koussour that I was so taken with the character.
Layla is in her last year at school in Amsterdam and her (lower?) middle-class family expect her to do well in her exams and to start university. However, she is becoming increasingly angry about the persecution of Muslims in her society and her own struggles for ‘identity’. She has begun wearing the hijab in the face of moves to ban the veil in public life and she has joined a group of Muslim women making public demonstrations. An incident at a football match involving her father’s team is the beginning of her increased resistance to the racism she identifies in her local community and a well-scripted family melodrama reveals the divisions between Layla and her family including her less assertive brother who she tries to encourage to become more devout and more politically aware. Layla turns toward online friendships that later become face-to-face, particularly with Abdel, seemingly the leader of the young men associated with a local mosque. Eventually, she marries Abdel (as much for love as for solidarity and support) and the two decide to leave the Netherlands, travelling via Belgium to reach an unnamed country (identified as Jordan only via the credits and its border with Syria).
Once married Layla discovers that her husband expects her to stay ‘home’ in their sparse lodgings in the unnamed town while he becomes more and more involved in what looks like insurgency action. Frustrated, Layla attempts to link up with other wives in similar marriages and as the image above suggests, she finds some fulfilment working with children in a refugee camp – something her husband doesn’t know about. I won’t spoil the narrative any further in the hope that the film will become available in the UK.
‘Layla M.’ as a title refers to the way the central character might be known in the press or by security forces. It also suggests that Layla is a kind of ‘universal character’. In the Q&A that followed the film, the director said that she hoped it would be seen as a universal story and she agreed with the Festival Director Heather Stewart (who chaired the Q&A) in also seeing Layla’s story as being about gender as much as it was about religion or national/personal identity. So far, the film has only screened at the Toronto and London Film Festivals. In answers to questions Mijke de Jong said that she hoped that the film would be widely seen in the Netherlands and that she was confident that since she worked closely with the Muslim community in Amsterdam in developing the film that it would attract the viewers who could most identify with it. Many young Muslim women have already expressed an interest in the film via social media.
Some questions followed the “she’s a good person with bad ideas” line. I reject this. Layla’s own ideas are fine but aren’t thought through. Some of the questions/comments suggested that this film should be seen in the UK. I’d argue it should be shown and discussed in UK schools. I think it would be much more effective than the UK Government’s attempts at a ‘Prevent’ programme.