A New Film About Young French Women Drawn to Jihadism
By Elisabeth Zerofsky , November 23, 2016
“Heaven Will Wait” draws from real stories of teen-age girls in France who joined networks of jihadists. Photograph Courtesy TIFF
In “Heaven Will Wait,” a new film by the French director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, a teen-ager named Sonia is placed under house arrest after being caught plotting to plant a bomb with a group of other girls. Sonia sulks around her parents’ Paris apartment like any adolescent who has been grounded, but her predicament is a matter of national security. Her father has ripped the bathroom door from its hinges so that she can’t hide inside, and she is required to check in daily at the local precinct, where the police ask her absentmindedly to furnish her identity card, forgetting that it has been revoked to prevent her from leaving for Syria. One night while her family is sleeping, Sonia sits on the toilet in darkness with a stolen cell phone, its glare casting light across her eyes. She pulls up a video on Ansar at-Tawhid, a French-language channel linked to ISIS, the tinny sounds of Arabic chants sending her into anxious tears. She shuts the phone off and goes into her mother’s bedroom. “I went back online—I couldn’t stop myself,” she whispers to her mom. “It’s like dozens of voices in my head telling me to go back there. I can’t take it anymore. I’m scared of being stuck, scared of leaving it all, scared of staying. I’m going mad.”
“Heaven Will Wait,” which was released in France last month, dramatizes a particularly anguished dimension of the country’s struggles with terrorism in the past two years: the fact that the perpetrators of recent attacks have been, for the most part, French citizens. “These are children of the Republic who killed children of the Republic,” Aurélia Gilbert, a survivor of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall, which killed ninety people last November, said in testimony in parliament, earlier this year. “I would like to understand at what moment we, French society, lost them.” The government has been quietly studying the epidemic of jihadist radicalization for several years, and has found that Islamist ideologies are seducing not only disaffected young men but also teen-age girls. Some thirty per cent of French citizens who are radicalized today are women, according to the government. In September, three young women were arrested in Paris after attempting to stage a car bombing near Notre Dame. “It was a mystery that I wanted to resolve for myself,” Mention-Schaar said of her reasons for making “Heaven Will Wait,” which is one of a recent spate of movies that take up the subject of radicalization, though it is unique in its attention to women. “Parents are caught completely off guard. We don’t know how it happens that, all of a sudden, four young women who met on the Internet want to commit an attack. What happened before that?”
Mention-Schaar drew much of the material for her film from the work of Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and former youth educator who has become known in France, sometimes with a note of derision, as “Madame De-indoctrination.” Bouzar had been working with young women for years, in cultural organizations and through child-protection services, when she began to notice that some were developing relationships with jihadist recruiters on the Internet. In 2014, the French government enlisted Bouzar’s help in formulating a “deradicalization” policy. “Heaven Will Wait” tells the parallel stories of two girls drawn from Bouzar’s files. (Bouzar plays herself in the film). Sonia’s father is North African and her mother is French, but both are atheists, and both are at a loss to understand their daughter’s susceptibility to an apocalyptic vision of Islam. “If I die in Syria as a martyr, I can save seventy people from Hell—my parents, my little sister,” she tells them. The film’s second protagonist, Mélanie, is an earnest redhead who lives in a Paris suburb with her mother. When her grandmother passes away, Mélanie finds solace chatting with a mysterious figure on Facebook named Abu Hussein. He tells Mélanie that she is “special,” not like other girls, and Mélanie is enlivened by their growing intimacy. In a quest to please him, she begins to submit to his demands—over how she dresses, where she goes, to whom she speaks.
Mention-Schaar shaped the characters of Sonia and Melanie around expert findings on “djihad au féminin.” Girls who become radicalized are often good students from middle-class or lower-middle-class families. Like Mélanie, they are often raised by divorced parents or in non-traditional family structures. (The sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar has theorized that such backgrounds may lead some young women to fantasize about a jihadist as an “ideal husband,” committed to the sanctity of family.) The young women are also often, like Mélanie, converts from Catholic, Jewish, and atheist families, which can make them more susceptible to the extremist versions of Islam they encounter on the Internet. In the movie, as Mélanie becomes increasingly wrapped up in her online relationship with Abu Hussein, she seeks out other Muslim girls as friends. One afternoon, while she is studying in her room with her schoolmate, Jamila, Mélanie’s mother brings them chocolate éclairs. Mélanie refuses to eat them because, she says, commercial baked goods contain pork gelatin. Jamila, who grew up in a Muslim family, shrugs. “I don’t believe that. If it looks like pork, you don’t eat it. If it looks like an éclair, you eat it.”
A film based so carefully upon sociological research perhaps inevitably ends up feeling didactic; France’s education minister has said that the film’s effort to portray the mindset and motivations of young French women drawn to jihad does a “service to the public.” Yet it’s the ending of the movie, which veers away from the real-life stories upon which it is based, that feels most neatly and narrowly designed to impart lessons. Mélanie eventually leaves France, supposedly to join Abu Hussein in Syria. Her mother, in hysterics, appeals to the French government to bring her daughter back, and asks a reporter who covers the region to help smuggle her into Syria so she can search for Mélanie herself. They remind her delicately that few of the French women who have left for Iraq or Syria have returned; the average one survives less than a year.
Sonia’s story has a happier outcome. Her character resembles one of Bouzar’s most publicized cases: a young woman, known in France under the pseudonym Léa, who was caught planning to bomb a synagogue near Lyon and entered into rehabilitative care under Bouzar. In “Heaven Will Wait,” Sonia’s parents employ Bouzar’s method, which is known as the “Madeleine de Proust.” One evening, they pull out an old family video of Sonia when she was a child on summer vacation and leave it playing in the background in their living room. According to Bouzar, reconnecting with the sensations of the “pre-radicalized self” can reawaken one’s individuality and identity, which is the first step in breaking the hold of indoctrination. The method works on Sonia, and she is soon reconciling with her family, returning to her normal life, and looking to help others do the same.
The real “Léa,” meanwhile, is currently in prison. Bouzar and her family eventually discovered that she had resumed ties with her network. Earlier this year, she was placed in juvenile detention so that she can be monitored. When I spoke with Bouzar last summer while reporting on new deradicalization programs in France, she described the cycle of radicalization in terms that are similar to those of addiction. “All these young people relapse and then recover, relapse and then recover,” she told me. Léa “is not unique.” (Bouzar maintains that many of the young people she has worked with have been successfully rehabilitated.) At a panel that Bouzar spoke at not long ago, an audience member asked whether France was nearing the beginning of the end of the upheaval caused by terrorism. “I think we are at the beginning, full stop,” another expert said, and Bouzar agreed. “I don’t want to scare you, but we are hearing about six new women per week. That’s about one per day,” Bouzar said. “It’s a horror.”
Elisabeth Zerofsky’s work on this piece was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.