Layla M is an engaging and perceptive drama that puts many trivial "first-world problems" into perspective. Director Mijke de Jong grabs the viewer’s attention in the opening scene with an intense argument that clearly introduces Layla’s fierce personality and the problem of Islamic discrimination in Amsterdam. The film continues to follow how young Layla (Nora El Koussour), a radical Dutch-Moroccan Muslim growing up in Amsterdam, turns to radical Islam to combat her government’s relentless oppression towards Muslims.
I found it amazing how in the beginning, Layla just naturally soaked up extremist radical propaganda while many of her close friends and family were clearly against it. Layla praises the martyrs who gave up their lives in the name of Islam and vocally criticizes people for doing anything considered haram. She was also a part of a radical Islamist group in Amsterdam that promoted fundamentalist propaganda. Viewers get to watch Layla make drastic decisions such as leaving during her exams to go pray in her niqab, which is forbidden in Amsterdam. She is also active in promoting pro-Islamic propaganda protecting the rights of Muslims in Amsterdam.
Aside from the Secret Services, Layla’s father is her biggest adversary. He does not hesitate to rescue his daughter from interrogation and the possibility of jail time after participating in protests. He also does not hesitate to call his daughter out on her extremist behavior even if that means awkward silence at the dinner table for the rest of the family. Layla often engages in the “that could have been us” argument with her father regarding refugees in Syria and Gaza. He even makes several threats to send her back to Morocco throughout the film. As she becomes more and more disillusioned by the ideology, she loses her emotional connection to her family members, especially her brother, who is nearly arrested during a protest she persuaded him to join. Her disillusionment grows to the point where she decides to leave her family to marry and live with Abdel (Ilias Addab), a jihadist Islamist film maker.
Despite Layla’s radical behavior, the progression of her character as well as the subject of the film is what makes Layla M truly unique and worth watching. Layla’s relationship with Abdel marks a change in Layla as a believer. After moving with him to the Middle East and witnessing more extreme sacrifices first hand, Layla finally begins to question the extent of her beliefs. What is interesting about her transition is that the exact reasoning behind Layla’s change is not clearly stated in the film. Her daily tasks performed while in the Middle East show that her new lifestyle has softened her take on Islam but how exactly her beliefs have changed is not clearly mentioned in the movie. Layla’s growth as a character makes me question if her previous radical beliefs were just the result of the oppressed environment she was living in or an excuse to rebel against authority.
This film deals with the question of morality and religion. Layla’s digression from radical beliefs poses the conflict of expressing religious freedom and the consequences of such actions. Is it right for people like Abdel to become martyrs and give up their lives for a cause they feel strongly for? Or is it wrong for them to unwillingly sacrifice the lives others although it is in the name of religion? Ultimately, everyone needs a film like Layla M. The authenticity of Layla’s transition reminds us that some of the threats we view as significant in life are not as big as they seem. After Layla moves to the Middle East and interacts with people who are facing genuine and inescapable problems in a region that constantly faces political and economic turmoil, viewers see a drastic change from the secure lifestyle she once had while living with her family in Amsterdam. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel grateful for even the smallest privileges.