The Dardennes Brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, won the Director’s Prize at Cannes for Young Ahmed in 2019. I seem to remember that the film was not as enthusiastically received as the earlier films by the brothers when it was released in France and Belgium. As usual it took much longer to arrive in the UK and was released online in June 2020 when many of us were still reluctant to return to cinemas. The Dardennes’ work is well known since the release internationally of La promesse in 1996 and this 2019 film was the ninth title produced over the next 23 years. A tenth, Tori and Lokita, screened at Cannes in 2022 but is still to be released. The brothers take care in researching, developing and writing their productions and there is a strong sense of the same repeated elements in each ‘project’. They have won several prizes at Cannes, including the Palme d’Or twice, rivalling Ken Loach with whom they share some aspects of filmmaking practice and sometimes join in co-productions. There is a sense in which, however both La fille inconnue (The Unknown girl, 2016) and Young Ahmed have seen a fall in audiences and a dent in the enthusiasm of international critics. Whether this is evidence of the brothers’ loss of ‘touch’ or whether it signals changing fashions or politics or simply a wish to see something different in the approach is something worth exploring. Young Ahmed is similar in many ways to the earlier films but its specific subject content is certainly provocative and seems to have caused some negative reactions.
The two obvious recurring features are the setting, once again the Meuse valley in Wallonia and the central character as a young person marginalised in some way. Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) is a 13 year-old in a single parent family. He has a slightly older brother, an older sister and his mother who appears to be European. There is no mention of a father but Ahmed and Rachid both attend the mosque and a ‘homework school’. One problem I had is that I didn’t pick up where Ahmed’s family might be from originally. The largest migrant community in Belgium is Moroccan I think, but by not defining the family the Muslim identity becomes more important in the narrative. The disruption in the narrative has already begun when the film starts. Ahmed has responded strongly to the teachings of a new Imam in the mosque. He has begun to display signs of embracing a more hardline adherence to his Muslim identity. He refuses to shake hands with his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) in the supplementary school (we don’t see him at mainstream school). Once home from the mosque, he criticises his mother for having a couple of glasses of wine and accuses his sister of dressing like a ‘slut’ because she wears a top that is tight-fitting and ‘revealing’ in his view. This change in Ahmed’s behaviour has taken place over the last month or so. A crisis point comes when at a community meeting to discuss Inès’ idea of learning modern Arabic alongside mosque classes in Quranic Arabic, Ahmed says Inès doesn’t care about the Quran because she has a Jewish boyfriend. At this point Ahmed seems to have gone beyond the Imam’s instructions. So where will this lead him?
It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that several critics questioned whether two Belgian brothers in their sixties should be making a film about a young Muslim. Having said that, they have made successful films about young people before and they have written stories about migrants and the difficulties they face in Belgium. Ahmed is shown to be influenced by the Imam and by the death of his cousin who appears to have been a form of martyr in a conflict overseas. Some reviewers see this as a story inspired by the Bataclan killings in Paris in 2015. The attackers included Belgians of Moroccan descent. But any thoughts of explosions and gun attacks in a Dardennes film would be very unusual. In fact, Ahmed eventually decides on an attack on Inès after the Imam refers to her as an ‘apostate’. His attempt to carry out the attack will lead to custody/juvenile detention. One reviewer does make a comparison with Chris Morris’ incompetent bombers in Four Lions (UK 2010). Thinking about it, this isn’t so strange. Ahmed is obviously an intelligent, studious boy at a dangerous age and, without a father, susceptible to the influence of male role models. He’s very serious and single-minded but he doesn’t know much about the wider world and his attempts to carry out his self-given mission are largely doomed.
I think that many of the supporting cast of this film are non-actors but I can’t find any corroboration of this – the Press Pack is not very helpful. The ‘thanks’ in the end credits suggest that many of them may be Seraing locals. Even the principals in the cast are not stars as was the case the case in the Dardennes, previous three films. I’m sure that the Brothers have done their homework and they have set out to tell a small scale story. My one observation about the Muslim community depicted is that it is presumably relatively recently established. Unlike the large and well-resourced mosques in my West Yorkshire town, the mosque in this film seems to be in a converted shop space and the Imam runs a store alongside. Apart from the use of the internet by Ahmed and his brother and the use of his cousin’s martyrdom there is little of the global jihad scenario, nor the governmental response of something like the ‘Prevent’ programme in the UK. In fact, the Belgian judicial and penal system and its handling of Ahmed’s case seem quite low-key and sensitive. I note that Ahmed is seen by a young female psychologist and that he is paired with Louise, a girl of around his own age at a farm placement as part of his therapy. Since Ahmed’s devotion to being a ‘pure Muslim’ makes him uncomfortable around women this does tend to keep the drama more ‘personal’ and small scale – though if he succeeds in his mission it would be a tragedy. I’ve seen comments about the film being ‘islamophobic’. I’m not best placed to judge but I don’t think this is the case. The scene of the parents meeting with its discussion of the teaching of Arabic seems to me designed to present the community responsibly.
I can see why, compared to other Dardenne Brothers’ films, this seems a bit flat and ‘wooden’ in terms of performance despite the realism of its presentation, but I think it still makes worthwhile points and I find it an easy watch – apart from the ending which doesn’t offer a clear resolution. I think the key to the film is Ahmed’s young age as the title emphasises. We’ve seen older adolescents getting caught up in jihadist adventures, but nobody of this age before as far as I’m aware. Young Ahmed has been on BBC iPlayer in the UK for some time and it remains available for a further 5 months. It is certainly worth a watch.
I’m posting this comment sent to me by Shabanah Fazal who has made a couple of earlier posts on the blog:
“The Dardenne brothers are white, not Muslim and their film deals stereotypically with the deradicalisation of a young Muslim fanatic. Young Ahmed is so short it lacks some depth and we never really get a sense of the wider social context that could explain all Ahmed’s motivations. He’s presented as driven almost exclusively by ideology/identity issues, and wilfully resistant to his teachers, social workers and mentors. Almost all of these are well-meaning white people, but there’s no sense that racism might also have played at least a small part. We never see him encounter a single remotely racist white person in wider society, of the sort for whom young Ahmeds so often develop a grievance that fuels their extremism.
On the other hand, what’s more interesting and complex is that his mother is white, and the teacher he attacks who has done so much to help him is herself Muslim, which reminds us of the often-forgotten fact that the main victims of Islamist extremist are themselves Muslim. Best of all, we see genuine ideological diversity in the range of Muslim views represented with liberal, moderate and conservative Muslims shown vigorously but peacefully disagreeing with each other. Exactly – no social group is a monolith, yet we don’t see this often enough in films about extremism.”
These are all good points Shabanah and I don’t want to disagree with any of them, but a couple of comments are necessary I think. One is to emphasise that the Dardennes always choose stories to write that might be found in the Seraing district and are often specifically about young people. It is quite possible that they get a story ‘wrong’ when it is about a young Muslim boy like Ahmed. However I think there is an authenticity in terms of what they see in the district they know so well. I’m also fairly sure that Ahmed’s experience will be different in some ways from those of similarly aged boys either in the Moleenbeck district of Brussels with its significant Moroccan population or the similarly distinct Muslim populations in parts of the UK such as the mill towns of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire. I’m not sure what those differences are or how they would affect Ahmed, but I’m sure they exist.
“We never see him encounter a single remotely racist white person in wider society.” That’s true and I’m sure you are correct in thinking that is perhaps unbelievable. But is it always necessary to show the racists as characters or to present the institutional racism that no doubt exists in the town? My argument is that this is a very personal story and that it seems to derive from the arrival of the new Imam – a character who seems to lose his enthusiasm for agitation as soon as he realises that his position is vulnerable. Ahmed is ‘radicalised’ but doesn’t really comprehend what the problems he faces are all about. He doesn’t meet any white people beyond those in the detention centre and welfare services. They don’t display any direct racial prejudice but apart from the judge, who seems very friendly, most of them carry out their tasks dispassionately. Louise might be accused of sexual harassment but otherwise the story is about Ahmed’s own possibly distorted perceptions?
You are absolutely right to remind me of the distinct context of the film, which ironically only supports the point about Muslim communities and individuals within them not being a monolith.
I also agree with your point that it isn’t always necessary to represent racists / racism on screen – directors can selectively tell any story they choose. But, like other reviewers, I wanted to see more of a build up to Ahmed’s radicalisation, even if in the end it did boil down more to his own distorted perceptions than anything else.
I think my comments on racism were a response to reviews I read after watching the film, that it was ‘Islamophobic’, a lazy charge seemingly based on nothing more than the identity of the directors and the subject matter. So it was more on reflection that I found myself looking at the film from those reviewers’ viewpoint and considering what they might possibly have found lacking. My own experience on first viewing was of a flawed, but mostly enjoyable and absorbing human drama. I certainly think it deserved more generous reviews and more viewers.
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Thanks Shabanah. I think we are in the same place in ‘reading’ the film.