It all started when the duo’s second and latest feature, Black, caught the eye of Eddie Murphy and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. An adaptation from the eponymous Belgian youth novel by Dirk Bracke, the modern tale of star-crossed lovers trapped amidst the cruel politics of a Brussels gang war is tough to watch at times, registering two gang rapes. Its premiere in the capital was controversial, with some cinemas refusing to screen the movie for fear of small riots.
Taking note of this, the director team with Moroccan roots did something with Black that few of their Belgian contemporaries had done before. They gathered around them a large cast of unknown faces – local kids from Brussels – all with differing roots. Especially noteworthy are the performances of the adolescent Romeo and Juliet, with Martha Canga Antonio as Mavela and Aboubakr Bensaihi as Marwan. The pair feel their way through the violent underbelly of the capital as fast-paced editing and a restless camera betray their directors’ fondness for Spike Lee films. Panoramic shots of Brussels at dusk and a fiery, vaguely oriental soundtrack take care of the mood. A mood that was well-received, as Black saw the duo leave Toronto with a Discovery Award last year, prompting a contract with Creative Artists Agency and a flood of calls to the young helmers – Fallah is 30 and El Arbi only 28 years old.
First in Hollywood to lock down the directorial brotherhood of two for an American adventure was Fox. The film in question is The Big Fix (a preliminary title), a thriller set in the murky world of soccer game-fixing, based on a ESPN The Magazine article, ‘All The World Is Staged’ by Brett Forrest. With an as-of-yet unknown production and release date, all that is certain is that Peter Chernin, producer of Michaël Roskam’s The Drop, will be rolling up his sleeves to work with Belgian directors yet again.
Currently in production however is the pilot episode of Snowfall, a project that on first glance leans much closer to what El Arbi and Fallah have gravitated towards before. Set in the troubled neighborhoods of 1980s LA, the FX series connects naturally with the duo’s innate sensibilities previously on display in Black and Image. The directors also filmed the latter, their debut feature, on home turf: the ‘rougher’ Brussels neighborhoods of Schaerbeek and Molenbeek, a setting where younglings with a foreign background do their growing up and white suburban families take issue with it. Though a bit clunky and heavy-handed in execution and message, the kernel of Black was there.
Fast forward to a meeting with Eddie Murphy – the ’80s and ’90s franchise that El Arbi and Fallah ate up with a spoon when they were kids. This time, tough and wacky cop Axel Foley will be returning to the streets of Detroit, Murphy tells them. Whenever the deal was made, we’d like to imagine the two jovial, young directors walking out of that meeting with smiles that didn’t come off for weeks.