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“We Didn’t Try to Colonize the Boy in Making the Film”: The Dardenne Brothers on Young Ahmed

Claire Bodson and Idir Ben Addi in Young Ahmed

For 20 years running, the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have confronted a single fundamental facet of modern life: class. From their breakout La Promesse (1996) to The Unknown Girl (2016), the messy tangle of money, employment, and morality has defined their work. The brothers take a hard turn, in subject if not style, with Young Ahmed. The film debuted at Cannes, like their previous seven features, where it won the Best Director prize earlier this year. Despite that honor–which they won over Almodóvar, Tarantino, and Malick among other heavyweights–the film has earned the harshest reviews of the Dardennes’ career. Unlike the universal acclaim that greeted Two Days, One Night (2014), Young Ahmed has divided (at best) critics and festival audiences. It’s easy, if not tempting, to dismiss the film based on its premise alone. Does the world, after all, need a film about a radicalized Muslim boy as told by two older, European white men?

In 2019, it’s certainly not a good look. The film itself, which runs a scant 75 minutes before credits, doesn’t give Islamophobes much to savor. It depicts a would-be terrorist, but it does so with the brothers’ typical lack of judgement. The film doesn’t deliver any definitive statement on radicalization–its causes or cures. It instead offers a case study of an inscrutable child, Ahmed, played by Idir Ben Addi. Ahmed, a 13-year-old Belgian boy, is possessed by a single urge: to rid the earth of anything he deems “impure” in the eyes of Allah. He is, in other words, a jihadist in training. The film charts his strained attempts to murder his teacher, whose teachings (and whose Jewish boyfriend) he views as blasphemous.

Many will argue, without seeing it, that the very existence of Young Ahmed is irresponsible. The film itself doesn’t actively court controversy; it’s far too slight and inconclusive to come off as a hateful polemic. It remains to be seen, though, how the film will play in the U.S. The brothers’ previous film, for example, found a U.S. distributor before it even premiered; Young Ahmed didn’t find an American distributor until four months after Cannes. There’s an understandable skittishness around the film, a first for the directors.

The Dardennes spoke recently (via a translator) with Filmmaker about the difficult issues raised by their film. Below, they gamely defend Young Ahmed from the charges that are sure to come: religious insensitivity, perpetuation of stereotypes, telling a story that doesn’t “belong” to them. Young Ahmed had its first North American premiere this week at the New York Film Festival and will see a theatrical release next year from Kino Lorber.

Filmmaker: You’re known for films about class and employment. What interested you in this story about religious extremism? 

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: After all the terrorist attacks that took place, especially in France and Belgium, with all these young people who were leaving to fight a holy war, my brother and I often said to each other, “We always say that we try to make cinema of the present. We should try to confront this present. That of young boys who are born in democratic societies, and yet who are at a certain point obsessed, taken over, transformed by religious fanaticism.” 

Filmmaker: Not being Muslims yourselves, were you afraid or reticent of tackling this material? 

Luc Dardenne: No. We were not scared, but it’s true we had to study the Quran ourselves and texts by radicalized people. Our goal was not so much to condemn this religious character. We love Ahmed. We didn’t want to judge him in a moralist way. The tendency is, if you see a young boy who does what Ahmed does, you’re going to reject him. So we had to take the time to understand what would make a boy like him want to kill what he perceived as impure. What is this idea of purity that could make you lose this fundamental notion that all human beings share, which is the taboo of murder?

Jean-Pierre: We told each other we’d take religion seriously. And so we show a boy praying, and then he goes to try and kill someone. That’s terrible to see, for all religions. He even asks Allah for his support. We told each other that we had to do this, otherwise we wouldn’t be showing what religious fanaticism is. This is not something that’s specific to Islam. Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a radical Jew. Christians killed lots of unbelievers during a certain period. So it’s not that religion, but it is specific to religion. We didn’t want to say, “Oh look, it’s because people are racist or experiencing bad economic circumstances.” All of this is true, but there’s also the specificity of religion. 

Filmmaker: Did you visit mosques or speak to any imams during your research for the project?

Jean-Pierre: In the juvenile detention center where Ahmed gets locked up, which is a real juvenile detention center, there are representatives for different religions who work with the young people. We talked with the imam who was there several times. We also had a former professor of Islam who was with us throughout the entire shoot. Even though we had learned ourselves about ablutions and so on, he was able to show us a precision with the gestures and the rhythms that we hadn’t thought of and that enriched our mise-en-scene. Any time there’s a scene in the film that deals with a religious issue, he was there to help us.

Luc: We also read books by imams. 

Filmmaker: The film starts very much mid-action. When we meet Ahmed, he already harbors extremist views. A different film would have shown his radicalization from the start. What drew you to starting the film mid-action in this way?

Luc: Films had already been made about radicalization, notably by Philippe Faucon. What we were interested in was how to get him out of radicalization. So in a sense it was the opposite. We took him already radicalized, already a fanatic, and we realized how deep that is. We wanted to see how we could, if I could call it this, “cure” him. And for us it was really hard. We realized that with an 18-year-old it would be impossible. Everything that we found for that was just too novelistic, too much of a storybook type of thing. So we opted for a younger boy. We didn’t find another character who could do it, so what we found in the end is this fall. He falls, he calls his mother, he touches the teacher. So he found his way out alone, not through another character. It’s after the fall, after he’s approaching this thing he doesn’t know, which is death. He’s powerless, his ideals crumpled to the ground. He doesn’t call out to Allah or the imam. He calls out to his mother, like every child would do. 

Filmmaker: Speaking of his mother, Ahmed is raised in the film by a mother played by Claire Bodson, who appears to be white woman of Belgian descent. Can you discuss the decision to have his mother not be a Middle-Eastern or Arabic woman?

Jean-Pierre: For us, it was good because it put our poor Ahmed, who is obsessed with purity, in an impure situation. We could suppose that his mother had converted to Islam to marry his father, but for Ahmed it put him in a situation that wasn’t clear. It was already complicated. His father, as we learn in the scene where his mom visits him in the juvenile detention center, never forced the mother to wear a hijab. They lived like free people, if we can use that word. In Ahmed’s case, radicalization does not stem from his family background.

Filmmaker: Your filmmaking is very economical here. Within a few seconds after his attempted attack, for example, he’s already in the rehabilitation center. The film, as such, is very short, nearly a half hour shorter than The Unknown Girl. I’m curious why you chose such a streamlined style for such difficult subject matter?

Luc: We saw this film as a race and a fall. He’s running, running, running until he gets on top of that roof, and then he falls. Even though we didn’t find the end until a little bit later, it’s really how we conceived of this film. Fanaticism makes him try to kill once, twice, three times, and then he falls. It needed to keep moving forward at that speed. He’s obsessed with this and it needed to keep moving forward at that speed. We wanted that speed, it was right for this subject. 

Jean-Pierre: Sometimes we have a little regret. We tell ourselves maybe when he’s in the juvenile detention center, we could have stayed a few seconds longer, gotten a little closer. Then again, regrets are not always correct. 

Filmmaker: Some viewers will undoubtedly say that by simply choosing to tell a story like this, you’re helping to perpetuate a hateful stereotype: that devout Muslims are prone to terrorism. How would you respond to a criticism like that?

Luc: It’s not a stereotype. We’ve met many Muslim viewers. It’s women who’ve spoken to us the most; the men don’t speak to us as much. But women see this film from the point of view of the mother, with this boy who has escaped her love, who has escaped education, citizenship. I think we need to forget about all this business you’re talking about when we make a film. Our film is about a character; it’s not some kind of statement about Muslims, pro or con. We don’t care about that stuff. In Europe, it tends to be that most of the terrorism recently has been perpetrated by people of Muslim background. Here in the US, it’s a little different. There’s white supremacy. I think that you can’t make a work of art being scared of who you might upset. If you feel your character, and you love him, then there comes a point where the audience has to be responsible for its reading of the film. Some people have said what you said: “Another film of a Muslim killing someone.” And, so what? We’re not making an amalgamation between this character Ahmed and all Muslims.

Filmmaker: In the U.S. right now there’s much conversation about who gets to tell a story. If this were an American film about a Muslim radical made by non-Muslims, there would likely be some criticism. Do such conversations take place in Europe, and do you think such criticisms have any merit?

Jean-Pierre: Before I answer your question, I want to tell a little anecdote that I remember from an interview with Stephen Frears. Stephen Frears adapted a novel by the Pakastani writer Hanif Kureishi [My Beautiful Laundrette]. I think Kureishi came to ask if he would make the film. Frears said to him, “How can I deal with these characters? OK, they live in the UK, but they’re Pakastani. There’s going to be a culture, an ambiance that’s just too foreign to me.” Kureishi said, “We’re all the same. We share these human feelings that make us all part of humanity. Obviously there are going to be some specific questions of tradition that you may not be familiar with, but as a filmmaker you can handle these things.” 

Luc: “Everybody’s blood is red.” Prince, you know, the singer.

Jean-Pierre: I think that’s what art and fiction give us. All of us, for instance if we’re at the theater and watching King Lear, even though it’s taking place in another time period in another social class, I think there’s enough humanity there that at some point we can all feel that we’re in King Lear’s or Cordelia’s place.

Luc: I think these differences of culture, of color, of tradition exist. I think we must respect these differences and know our own difference, where we come from. We mustn’t transform these differences into an essence. I’m aware of all these discussions today, for instance the work of Judith Butler. French sociologists are having the same kinds of discussions about decolonial ideas. There’s also the racialization of things: How certain aspects of people’s cultures cannot be shared, cannot be substituted. I think there’s some truth in this, but I think that it is different in the case of an artist. I think that an artist must be able to step into others’ shoes, to take the place of anyone else as long as it’s done with respect. For me, as a white man of Christian background, I think that I can come close to a child who is Muslim of Moroccan origin. Now, I’m not saying the film is being made by a Moroccan Muslim, but I’m saying we didn’t try to colonize the boy in making the film. 

Jean-Pierre: Personally I think this is a strange time for these kind of things. It’s as if the work of art, if we can consider a film a work of art, has become a kind of dogma to which one is obliged to adhere. It’s not this thing we can share that’s of generosity, but dogma that we must absolutely follow. 

Luc: Today there’s so much of this claiming of identity, this demand of identity. Of course we mustn’t forget about racial domination. To be black in the United States is not to be white, but on the other hand we also need to trust each other, to accept that a black person is not just the descendant of slaves. On a deep level, I really believe there is a universal fraternity. And it’s not just Christian.

Filmmaker: These aren’t easy questions; thank you for answering them. As a Middle Eastern film writer, I thought I should take this opportunity to hear you discuss these issues.

Jean-Pierre: I must say when we started work, Luc and I talked about this together. Why do this, can we do it, will we be able to do it? How are we going to find this common thing that we have that would allow us to accompany Ahmed for two or three years of our life?

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