Film Review: Copilot (2021)

Canaan Kir’s Asli finds herself married to a monster in the making.

From Anne Zohra Berrached, Copilot depicts the semi-imagined life of United-93 hijacker and Al-Qaeda member Ziad Jarrah (anglicised as Saeed in the film). Portrayed with heaps of both warmth and unease by Roger Azar. We encounter a young Saeed in mid-1990s Hamburg and watch as he radicalises over the next five years to 2001. 

Despite his presence (and absence) weighing heavy on the film, it is not chiefly about him; Copilot is about the woman to whom he gives that pet name, ‘co-pilot’. 

Early in the film we meet an optimistic medical student, Asli (Canaan Kir) as she lives the free life of a young adult. Party scenes and late-night truth-or-dare drinking games are intercut by shots of Asli and her co-students dissecting donated bodies and chatting about their daily lives. 

In this version of her world, its people are capable of being picked apart and understood, but as the radicalisation sets in and Saeed’s grip on Asli tightens, it becomes clear that nothing – especially him – was ever clear at all.

The film does not make any attempt to explain or analyse the process by which Saeed (Ziad) was radicalised, it instead chooses to present the effects of this radicalisation, and mobilisation into Al-Qaeda, on Asli’s life. It begins with the alienation of their friends, family and then of Asli from herself. 

Asli’s fractured identity manifests as a ghostly doppelganger and in her mirror’s reflection. These techniques blur the lines between fantasy and reality, rather like the film in its half-historical backstory of the attacks.

Some might say the film is provocative and I can understand that perspective, we spend a lot of time getting to know a mass-murderer, and don’t meet any of his victims. While that is true, the film’s intention is to present Asli as his first victim; she becomes his punching bag as he trains to kill, and viewing the films from this angle, it is very effective. 

Copilot is visually impressive, as Cinematographer Christopher Aoun makes use of natural light, natural weather and wide and narrow camera work. Sometimes doorways and walls close off the scenes, other times the frame opens up into vast natural panoramas. 

There is one shot of a storm cloud brewing in Lebanon that perfectly marries the emotion of that point in the film with the visuals. Places the couple went to in their early relationship are returned to, only where they were blue and sunny, or warm orange before, now they become an oppressive grey. 

It is filmed in three languages: English, Arabic and German; that the characters switch between very quickly, sometimes leading to a breakdown in their communication. 

In my opinion, this is one of the most successful aspects of the film; it shows how when communication fails – on either a personal, cultural, or international scale – the result will always be catastrophe.

YouTube player

Copilot is released in selected UK cinemas on 10 September 2021