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Youth radicalization explored on silver screen

In the aftermath of recent attacks in France and Belgium, and the flight of dozens of Canadian teenagers to join the Islamic State group in Syria, filmmakers behind titles such as “Layla M.” and “Heaven Will Wait” have sought to better understand the lure of terror for Western youths.

And Toronto audiences have welcomed their insights.

“It’s obviously very topical, and people are trying to come to grips with what goes into the radicalization of youth, what it means and what it looks like, and how it impacts families in particular,” said festival co-director Piers Handling.

“Layla M.,” by director Mijke de Jong, follows a Dutch-Moroccan teenager disenchanted by her Muslim family’s increasing secularism and her adopted country’s threat to ban the burqa, the full-body cloak worn by women in some Islamic traditions.

Echoing recent cases reported in the media, Layla, played by Nora El Koussour, drops out of school, marries a devout jihadist and flees to the Middle East in search of identity, community and purpose.

De Jong said she saw “many patterns from my own youth in Layla’s story: the passion and commitment to social injustice, the black-and-white simplistic way of thinking and the appeal of us — against the rest of the world.”

The Dutch director sees Layla’s choices as “all too fathomable given her circumstances,” not made by someone longing for violence but desperate to belong somewhere.

In “Heaven Will Wait,” French director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar traces the separate but similar journeys of Sonia (Noemie Merlant), 17, and Melanie (Naomi Amarger), 16, who are determined to join the Islamic State (IS) group.

Sonia is arrested as she is about to leave for Syria and disaster is averted while officials and her family guide her through rehabilitation.

But Melanie establishes an online relationship with a young man who changes her worldview with devastating consequences.