Berlinale film looks at Europe's children lost to jihad

Berlin (AFP) –


One of France's most high-profile directors, Rachid Bouchareb, has turned his camera on the appeal of jihad to a generation of young Europeans, in a picture screening at this week's Berlin film festival.

"The Road to Istanbul" tells the story of Elisabeth, a mother in Belgium whose 20-year-old daughter Elodie runs away from home to join fighters from the Islamic State group in Syria.

Elisabeth suspects nothing until a police inspector shows her a Facebook page on which her daughter recalls her conversion to Islam.

"I found my way," Elodie, played by Pauline Burlet, says into the camera.

Elisabeth thinks that Elodie is at a friend's house to study, only to learn that she has gone to Cyprus bound for Turkey, from where she will cross the border into Syria, joined by Kader, a young man she says she loves.

"It's like she's hit by a strong uppercut," the actress who plays Elisabeth, Astrid Whettnall, told reporters, explaining the impact of Elodie's sudden transformation.

Thousands of young European Muslims and converts have travelled to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad.

Belgium is the European country that has produced the most jihadist fighters relative to its population size, with some 500 believed to have gone to fight in the Middle East.

Bouchareb, a Franco-Algerian filmmaker best known for the groundbreaking 2006 drama "Days of Glory" (Indigenes) about north Africans serving in the French army during World War II, said he had sought to closely examine a woman "completely shattered" by what happens to her family.

He worked closely with prominent Algerian author Yasmina Khadra on the screenplay and met with parents who had lost children to Islamic radicalism.

Bouchareb's 2009 "London River" offered a dramatic account of radical conversion in the context of the 7/7 jihadist public transport bombings in London four years before.

- 'God is with me' -

Living in an idyllic spot in the Belgian countryside, Elisabeth tries to work out how she as a parent could have allowed Elodie to stray so far from the path she had imagined for her.

She attends a conference for parents who have faced similar situations.

"The important thing is to stay in contact (with Elodie) -- Facebook, Skype, mobile phone, friends, anything is good," she hears.

Elisabeth manages to reestablish a connection to Elodie but is shocked to hear the steely determination in the girl's voice when she tells her mother via Skype about her new "brothers and sisters".

"God is with me -- do not worry," she tells her, her head covered in a black veil.

Devastated, Elisabeth ignores the risks and decides she will travel herself to the chaotic and violent region to try to bring her daughter back.

Bouchareb said he was fascinated by the internal conflict of the mother, who has to swallow her anger and confusion to try to reestablish a bond with her wayward daughter.

Asked about how Europe could effectively tackle the problem, he told reporters that he saw "a huge need to understand so that we may act".

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, when speaking about the November jihadist attacks in Paris, had claimed there was no "social, sociological or cultural explanation" behind them.

But Bouchareb called on scholars to examine "why our youth are leaving" and look for compelling reasons to keep them at home.

The Berlin film festival runs until Sunday.