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Youth radicalization explored at Toronto film festival
Still from Layla M. directed by Mijke de Jong.

by Michel Comte

TORONTO (AFP).- The radicalization of young Muslims, an uprooted girl's search for identity and post-adolescents on a path to spread terror overseas bloodied the silver screen at the Toronto film festival Friday.

In the aftermath of recent attacks in France and Belgium, and the flight of dozens of Canadian teenagers to join the Islamic State group in Syria, filmmakers behind titles such as "Layla M." and "Heaven Will Wait" have sought to better understand the lure of terror for Western youths.

And Toronto audiences have welcomed their insights.

"It's obviously very topical, and people are trying to come to grips with what goes into the radicalization of youth, what it means and what it looks like, and how it impacts families in particular," said festival co-director Piers Handling.

"Layla M.," by director Mijke de Jong, follows a Dutch-Moroccan teenager disenchanted by her Muslim family's increasing secularism and her adopted country's threat to ban the burqa, the full-body cloak worn by women in some Islamic traditions.

Echoing recent cases reported in the media, Layla, played by Nora El Koussour, drops out of school, marries a devout jihadist and flees to the Middle East in search of identity, community and purpose.

De Jong said she saw "many patterns from my own youth in Layla's story: the passion and commitment to social injustice, the black-and-white simplistic way of thinking and the appeal of us -- against the rest of the world."

The Dutch director sees Layla's choices as "all too fathomable given her circumstances," not made by someone longing for violence but desperate to belong somewhere.

In "Heaven Will Wait," French director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar traces the separate but similar journeys of Sonia (Noemie Merlant), 17, and Melanie (Naomi Amarger), 16, who are determined to join the Islamic State (IS) group. 

Sonia is arrested as she is about to leave for Syria and disaster is averted while officials and her family guide her through rehabilitation.

But Melanie establishes an online relationship with a young man who changes her worldview with devastating consequences.

Identity crisis
The protagonists in these films are motivated by idealism, rebellion and a spiritual need, like most teenagers, but their choices are incomprehensible to their families and policymakers.

In Canada, as in other countries facing this problem, the search for solutions to prevent youth radicalization is mounting.

Last month, Ottawa announced plans for a new center devoted to stem the flow of youth traveling to Syria and taking up arms with IS, after a young man heading out to set off explosives in the Toronto area was shot dead by police in the backseat of a taxi outside his home.

Several other films screening at the Toronto festival also touch on this recent and troubling phenomena, but focus instead on its consequences and links, such as Raja Amari's "Foreign Body."

The film sees a young Samia, played by Sarra Hannachi, living illegally in France after informing on her Islamic extremist brother in Tunisia in the wake of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, and struggling to find her own identity.

She braves a hostile sea to reach France but her struggles only multiply as she seeks to make a life in a foreign land -- akin to the plight of Syrian refugees flooding Europe.

French director Bertrand Bonello's "Nocturama" and the entry by Canadian directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, "Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves," take a different tack, respectively following cells that launch attacks in Paris and those sowing mayhem in Montreal in a bid to overthrow the government.

The latter, inspired by massive student protests in Montreal in 2012, tackles the awakening of political consciousness of a group ready to unleash terror against society's inertia.

"Nocturama" follows a small group of youths who set off explosives across Paris, triggering a manhunt.

The script, said Bonello, "emerged from a feeling about the world in which we live."

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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