Two teenage girls fall into the clutches of radical Islamists: A new French movie takes a look at the real threat of Islamist radicalization in Western societies.
One encounters these stories often in the daily media, in the news or in political magazines: a young woman or man, 17 or 18 years old, from a western European country, most often a middle class family, suddenly breaks away and turns to radical Islamists. Sometimes these young people have already left for Syria or Iraq. Sometimes they remain in their homeland and have been arrested by the authorities. Shocked and baffled parents are left behind to ponder how it ever happened.
French director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar directly addresses this fraught subject in her fourth feature film, "Heaven will wait," which follows two young women as they become ensnared by IS and jihad.
The path to jihad
The story begins with the character Melanie, who still lives at home with her mother Sylvie. The two get along well until the daughter vanishes suddenly. She is on her way to Syria. Sonia, 17, also still lives with her parents, and they, too, seem to get along - until one day Sonia is arrested on suspicion of plotting a bomb attack. Her parents are shocked.
Mention-Schaar researched the radicalization of young people far and wide after the issue came to her attention in newspaper articles and on the internet. She read about Dounia Bouzar, co-founder of the French "Center for Prevention, De-radicalization and individual care" (CPDSI), and managed to persuade her to join the cast in "Heaven will Wait." Bouzar plays herself, while both Melanie and Sonia are fictional characters.
The director was particularly interested in the fate of young women. "[It's easier to] identify with their motives than with the motives of boys, who are often radically different," she says.
What then makes young men and women in western European societies become radical Islamists, a shift that is so difficult to comprehend for anyone on the outside? "The film looks at this very fragile moment in youth when people crave commitment and purity, when they move from one extreme to the other, from being elated to depression," Mention-Schaar says. In this phase of their lives, young people "oppose teachers, parents, everyone who represents authority."
The director says she tried to capture the girls' contradictions - "[their] difficult return, their need to hold fast to their faith, but also their relationship with their parents, who can't stand to hear one more word about god or religion."
The film almost did not get made. Filming was scheduled to begin November 16, 2015, and everything was set, including financing, the cast, the film locations. Then, on November 13, gunmen and suicide attackers hit Paris, and 130 people lost their lives.
It was a "terrible coincidence," the director says, adding that she spent the entire weekend after the Friday attacks pondering whether to cancel the upcoming film shoot. Everyone involved was "utterly unsettled" by the thought of making a film that tries to explore the intimate thoughts of two young girls who become fanatics at a time when France is hit once again at its very core.
Mention-Schaar and her team decided to go ahead with the project.
"Understanding has nothing to do with apologizing," she argues, adding that she felt it was more important to try to understand. Highly topical in the wake of the most recent attacks in London, this important film - it premiered in 2016 at the International Film Festival in Locarno - is now showing in German cinemas.