From Molenbeek to Hollywood why Belgian thriller Black is the new La Haine

The gang romance set in Brussels most notorious neighbourhood has earned comparisons to the 1995 French classic and opened Hollywoods doors for its Moroccan-Belgian directors

When Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah first read Dirk Brackes novel Black, they sarcastically joked that it would be their ticket to Hollywood, never imagining that such a thing was possible. As second-generation Moroccan-Belgians, they found that Black and its sequel a sort of West Side Story set in the immigrant suburbs of Brussels spoke to them. But as Arab teenagers seeking to break into Belgiums tiny, overwhelmingly white film industry, the odds were stacked against them. Especially as it turned out someone else was already making a film of the book. Added to which, at the time, El Arbi and Fallah were in their first year at film school, which they duly flunked.

And yet, 10 years later, here they are, on a blindingly sunny rooftop in downtown Los Angeles, thanks to Black which, of course, they ended up making after all. Its difficult to imagine two more disparate places in the popular imagination than Hollywood and Molenbeek the Belgian suburb where Black was shot, now synonymous with Islamist terrorism. All of which makes their journey one of the most astonishing in recent cinema.

Yet far from being culture-shocked, the pair seem completely at home. Fallah is even wearing an LA Dodgers baseball cap back-to-front. They have only been here three months, but between their street style, their Americanised English and the way they converse in tandem like a rap duo, you would never guess they were foreigners.

As they re-enact the moment they got the call from Hollywood, they look and sound just like locals.

Fallah: I was in my apartment [in Brussels], around midnight. I looked on my phone and it said Beverly Hills. What the fuck? Hello, its Daniel Rappaport from Management 360. I was, like, Is this for real?

El Arbi: We were like: Oh shit! American voice! Cool!

Fallah: Then they asked us what kind of movies we wanted to make. We said, Big shit! Gladiator or Star Wars.

El Arbi: They said come to LA. We said, We got no money yall. So they came over to Brussels for 24 hours, we made a deal, then it was Toronto [film festival].

Fallah: In Toronto, that was the first taste we got of Hollywood. We saw big actors like Idris Elba and Naomi Watts. It was, like, Holy shit, its becoming real.

Its about to get realer. They are about to begin shooting in South Central LA: a pilot for the FX network for a series on the citys 1980s crack cocaine epidemic. Titled Snowfall, it is being produced by the legendary John Singleton, director of 1990s classic Boyz N the Hood a movie Bilall and El Arbi cite as one of their inspirations. Snowfall could almost be Boyz N the Hood the series, it seems. Other reference points they cite include The Wire and The Shield.

In their round of Hollywood meetings, they also talked with uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the man behind Pirates of the Caribbean, Top Gun and innumerable other hits. We asked him: Hey! Can we do Bad Boys 3? says El Arbi. He said: Theres a director already on that. He doesnt talk a lot. But Bruckheimer did ask them to direct Beverly Hills Cop 4, Eddie Murphys long-stalled comeback vehicle, which is now set for release next year. They havent met Murphy yet, but apparently he personally approved them. So thats already a big-ass honour, says Fallah.

El Arbi: We cant say too much but its not an accident that they chose us. Its more Detroit than Beverly Hills, thats the general idea.

Fallah: Its going to be a comedy, obviously, but its going to also be edgy and harsh and real.

Bilall Fallah, left, and Adil El Arbi: They said come to LA. We said, We got no money yall. Photograph: Brian de Rivera Simon/WireImage

El Arbi: We know those kinds of places.

That is undeniable. Black, which went on to win the Discovery award at Toronto, hinges on the romance between a Moroccan petty criminal and a recently arrived Congolese girl, which sparks a war between their respective gangs, the 1080 and the Black Bronx. Its a stylish, technically slick movie, full of dynamic camera moves and scored by a blend of Belgian hip-hop and north African beats (plus a local cover of Amy Winehouses Back to Black). Yet it depicts an all-too-believable landscape of gang violence, criminality, discrimination, deprivation and rape.

Blacks closest equivalent, and an influence the film-makers readily acknowledge, would be Mathieu Kassovitzs La Haine, which pulled off a similar trick of capturing both the youthful energy and the circumscribed prospects of Europes immigrant margins, treading a fine line between commercial entertainment and gritty realism. That [La Haine] was 1995, says El Arbi, and when you look around, nothings really changed. Its actually worse. Ironically, Black has been banned in France, he points out. They said the overall atmosphere and theme of the movie doesnt match with the political climate of the country.

El Arbi and Fallah make no apologies for wanting to make a commercially minded movie rather than a sombre social-realist drama. This should be told to as many people as possible, says El Arbi, even though its a really harsh kind of story. If youre gonna do social commentary and not have cinematic value to it, then not a lot of people are going to see it.

But theres a palpable authenticity to Black. The story unfolds in subway stations and housing estates, primarily in Molenbeek and Matonge, respectively the north-African Arab and sub-Saharan African (primarily Congolese) districts of Brussels. The movie was shot on the streets and cast from them, too. And to the directors credit, theres barely a false note in the performances, particularly from the two leads, Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaihi.

Fallah: You dont have Moroccan or black actors. Certainly not between 15 and 21 years old. So, out of necessity, we had to go into the streets and into schools and on social media to find those actors.

El Arbi: Belgian cinema really is white. You go to casting agencies and acting schools everybodys white. We got together 400 people and selected the 16 best.

Fallah: And for every character, there was a lot of choice. Theres so much talent walking around.

How did they get such good performances out of them?

El Arbi: The thing we said to every person was, Did you ever lie to your mother to go out? Or lie to your teacher? And then they knew, Ah, OK. Actors are liars!

Its clear that the directors know this landscape intimately. Growing up in Belgium (El Arbi is 30, Fallah 28), they experienced the same prejudices and disadvantages their young cast face today. Antwerp was really one of the most racist cities in Europe, says Fallah, who grew up there. It was the golden age of the Flemish Block, the racist party which won every fucking election during the 1990s. The only reason they never had power is because all the other parties had to club together and form a group against them. He went to a predominantly white, Catholic school. In the beginning, you dont realise youre different. You think youre all the same, but after 9/11 happened, you came to school and everybody was, like, Are you happy now?

El Arbi, who grew up in Brussels, also remembers that time. We knew back then, it was gonna be a suckass 10 years for us. We didnt imagine 15 years later it would be even worse.

Fallah and El Arbi both have family in Molenbeek. Both are saddened at the districts current infamy as jihadi central, owing to the fact that many of those responsible for Islamist attacks across Europe hailed from there. Belgiums policy of ghettoising its immigrant communities in discrete areas is part of the problem, they say. They describe Molenbeek as a different country. The stores are all Moroccan; only Arabic or French are heard on the streets. Its similar with Matonge. Its like visiting Africa, says Fallah. But if you go one street to the right, youre in a different world. Thats typically Brussels. The only white faces we see in Black are those of police officers.

If you dont take people into society, you create a little bubble that doesnt interact with the real world, then you create those monsters, he says. Even if probably 90% of the people there are just normal people working and struggling.

El Arbi and Fallah on set of Black. Photograph: Johan Voets

Theres no trust, El Arbi adds, Its not inclusive. The people that were in charge said, Were not gonna help you, but were not gonna bother you either. That is the most deadly combination ever. If you just let things happen, its gonna be tough for good people to do good stuff and its gonna be easy for evil people to do the evil stuff.

Black exposes more than one faultline running through Europe as a whole and Belgium in particular. On top of Islamophobia and racial discrimination (although tensions between Moroccan and Congolese communities are relatively rare in real life, they point out), the country is riven by a giant cultural divide: between the northern, Dutch-speaking Flemish community and the southern, French-speaking community. Thus, theres an extra layer of social nuance in terms of language, El Arbi explains. If you talk French on the streets with your buddies, then youre cool, but if you talk Flemish, then youre a sellout. Flemish is the language of the rich people. By the time Black adds in generational and gender divides, you are left wondering how Belgian society holds together at all.

Fallah: Belgium doesnt have an identity. You dont have a big history like France or Holland. Belgium is a young country.

El Arbi: Its like a buffer, made by the UK and Germany.

Fallah: Its artificial. Its two worlds in one that they want to keep together.

El Arbi: And when youre 15 and young, you want to have an identity. You want something clear. Blacks, Moroccans, theyll never feel 100% Belgian. Even Belgians dont feel 100% Belgian. But drop them in Morocco or Congo, they will never be 100% either. So a gang or an extremist organisation can say: Come with us. You will have a name. You will be something. You are 1080 or Black Bronx or Isis.

The two film-makers formed their own gang at film school, being not just the only two non-white students but also the only ones with unashamedly commercial ambitions. Not that they dont worship the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier as well, they hasten to add.

El Arbi: It was pre-hipster, but they were hipsters doing hipster movies poetic bullshit that you dont understand with no action in it, no conflict either, no ending. Just one character struggling with himself, and some water, some cryptic dialogue, some closeup shaky shit. Oh man!

Fallah: We were the only two Moroccans, but we were also the only two who wanted to go to Hollywood, and we referenced, like, Steven Spielberg …

El Arbi: … Jerry Bruckheimer. That was, like, the big no word. You dont mention Jerry Bruckheimers name there. Thats why we clicked together so well.

Fallah: It was us against the world.

Still from Black.

They did find some allies, though. Their mentor at film school was Michal Roskam, director of the Oscar-nominated Bullhead (which first brought actor Matthias Schoenaerts to attention). When they failed their first year (We were making war movies, comedy shit, it didnt really work out, says Fallah), Roskam suggested they make movies more connected to their own backgrounds and identities. They won a prize with one of their first short films: funding to make another short. Instead, they used the money 120,000 (100,000) to make a feature: Image, a thriller, again set in Molenbeek. It was a commercial success, though they describe it more as a practice run.

Another crucial ally was Hans Herbots, an established Belgian film-maker. He was the one who was already making Black, the movie. On the strength of Image, and their personal connection to the subject matter, Herbots generously suggested that they direct Black instead of him, El Arbi explains. Also I think he was thinking: Fuck! A month in the hood in Molenbeek and me a white guy from Antwerp.

When El Arbi and Fallah step into South Central a few days hence, they wont feel quite so intimidated. They cant believe how smoothly everything happens here in Hollywood, compared with Belgium. They had sleepless nights on Black wondering if enough extras would turn up the next day, says El Arbi. Here, its like: You need 100 extras? All right. And theyll be there, in 1983 period clothing and hairstyles, period cars on the streets, the LAPD closing the roads. In Belgium, the cops give you authorisation to shoot and thats it. If theres a gang member coming to threaten you with a knife, which happened on the first day in Matonge, they will not be there.

As with Black, though, the most important thing is the permission of the neighbourhoods where the real, often harrowing history they are recreating took place not so long ago. They have made efforts to include the communities where they are shooting, discussing and explaining the project, sometimes via gang liaison intermediaries. You gotta have the streets on your side, says El Arbi. These are their stories.

The response has been broadly supportive, they say, even if locals dont always know what to make of them. Theyre like, Where you from? says El Arbi. We say Belgium and Morocco. Theyre like Morocco … Africa! He holds out a silver pendant around his neck in the shape of Africa. Theyre honorary boyz in the hood. Perhaps they havent come such a long way after all.

El Arbi and Fallah havent forgotten where they come from yet, they say. They are planning to make another movie there, after Snowfall and Beverly Hills Cop 4. But they also talk of shooting in Morocco, in Japan, of creating their own big-budget Hollywood science-fiction franchise. What were once dreams are now more like plans. And given their career trajectory so far, who is to say any of them are unrealistic?

Black is released in UK cinemas and on VOD platforms on 19 August

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