Why a Pair of Legendary Directors Took on Islamic Terrorism
The celebrated directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne open up to Nick Schager about “Young Ahmed,” their new film that explores the radicalization of a young Muslim boy.
Though mainstream American moviegoers might not know their names, brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the greatest, and most celebrated, filmmakers in the world—and have been for the past twenty years. Rising to global prominence in 1999 with the wrenching Rosetta, the Belgian directing duo have carved out a career like few others, marked by so many internationally acclaimed hits that listing them all would basically require reciting their entire filmography.
Whether collaborating with newcomers (Émilie Dequenne, Jérémie Renier), established stars (Olivier Gourmet, Adèle Haenel) or global icons (Marion Cotillard, in 2014’s Two Days, One Night), the Dardennes are masters at social-realist dramas that investigate the interplay between personal, political and moral dilemmas. Noted for their intensely expressive handheld cinematography (and their signature from-behind-characters’-heads compositions), which feels like a byproduct of their early documentary days, they’re inquisitive humanists at heart, interested in the various forces—internal and external—that shape and transform us.
To that end, Young Ahmed (in theaters Feb. 21) is a natural extension of their lifelong artistic impulses. The story of Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), an urban 13-year-old Muslim boy who’s been radicalized by a local imam (Othmane Moumen), it’s a complex and haunting study of extremism, and one that’s directly attuned to Europe’s ongoing struggles with terrorism.
Beginning with propulsive movement that rarely lets up over the film’s efficient 84 minutes, it reaches an early, harrowing apex when Ahmed—convinced by his imam that his female teacher Inèz (Myriem Akheddiou) is a heretic perverting the “true” word of Islam (he won’t even shake her hand)—violently attempts to murder the innocent educator. With that horrific act, Ahmed earns himself a trip through the legal system. Yet no matter the compassionate individuals he meets along his subsequent journey, many dedicated to altering his worldview, he remains committed to his virulent ideology, at least until a climactic incident that’s as surprising as it is mysterious.
The fact that, after decades spent examining ethical and economic dynamics, the Dardennes have waded into these topical waters makes their latest work a unique entry in their illustrious oeuvre. More distinctive still is their decision to focus not on Ahmed’s path to violent action, but instead the efforts of loved ones, legal officers, and new friends and acquaintances to repair his twisted mind and soul.
Given its explosive subject matter, it’s no shock that Young Ahmed—which earned the duo Best Directing honors at 2019’s Cannes Film Festival (where they’ve twice before won the Palm d’Or)—has been met by a relatively muted critical response, as well as insinuations that perhaps a pair of mid-60-year-old white Belgian men aren’t the ideal artists to tell this particular tale. Nonetheless, their drama is as urgent as it is insightful, and thus shortly before its stateside debut, we spoke with the siblings about their research into religious fanaticism, the reason for tackling this hot-button material through the prism of a kid, and whether would-be terrorists can truly be rehabilitated.
You won Best Directing honors at Cannes last year for Young Ahmed, but were you surprised by the somewhat more mixed-than-usual critical reception that the film received at the festival?
Luc: We knew that, when you’re making a film with this subject, and that’s speaking about Islam and terrorism and radicalism, people are afraid. Or they have extremely strong opinions, and racist opinions, and you’re walking into mined territory. But as artists, we felt, and we feel, that you can’t be afraid. You have to move forward.
Were you ever concerned that, as white European men, some might think you don’t have a “right” to tell a story about a radicalized Muslim boy?
Jean-Pierre: This is something we have been asked a number of times, and I’d say there are two things that brought us to make the film. First of all, there were a lot of acts of terrorism in Europe, and not just in Europe—all over the world. It’s global, and people in Europe are wrong to think it’s just happening in Europe. Much of it is based on religious beliefs that lead to these massacres. Being that we were, in a certain sense, close to it, we wanted a film that would show…there are a few films recently that have been about how you become a terrorist, but we felt it was possible to show how it was possible to come back to life. To actually escape this fanaticism. This is not only something that is pertinent to today—[when] it’s related a lot to the Quran—but also to the past, when Christians, and Catholics in particular, were behind many, many massacres. This fanaticism is part of basic humanity. Today, this radical version of the Quran is leading to it. So as white men, it really touches everybody. We of course had to educate ourselves thoroughly, because we were not familiar enough with the Islamic religion. We read on it, studied it, and met people who informed us.
Luc: I want to add that, through art—and in this particular case, film—the challenge is that one can become someone else. I can see a film about an African-American, and I can identity and become an African-American. I can see a film where the subject is someone who’s gay, and I can put myself in their shoes and feel what it is like to be gay. As authors, or screenwriters, you can forget your origins and you can communicate through that. I’m not saying we can always accomplish that, but artwork is there to address the world. That’s the aim. So we must believe in the differences, yes. We see the differences. But we are able to transcend them, go through them, and come to something else. This story of a young boy, it’s really a universal story. This is something that can be understood whether you’re white or North African or Asian. It’s a story that has a very common grounding.
When we first meet Ahmed, he’s already fallen under the spell of his local imam, much to the chagrin of his mother (Claire Bodson)—meaning Young Ahmed’s story is about the efforts to have him see the error of his ways. Why was the character’s process of potential rehabilitation more interesting to you than his radicalization?
Luc: First of all, there were a few French films that had already been done on the topic of radicalization. So we said to ourselves, if you take a young adolescent, and if we look at the process of trying to escape the radicalization, it’s a good measure, because it’s such a horribly deep process to be radicalized. The viewer will be able to see and feel how hard it is, and to what extent you can go in it and then come out of it—or not.
Having now researched this subject, do you feel like religious extremism is something that can be reversed—and if so, how is that best accomplished?
Luc: Realistically, all of the people that we met—whether it was doctors, psychiatrists, educators—told us it’s very, very, very hard to pull someone out of radicalism. And if someone has gone on to act on their radicalism, to commit something, it’s impossible, basically, is what they told us. So to be clear, what we did was a fiction. We’re not copying the reality.
The fact is that, as we were going through the process, we found that we could not bring Ahmed out of his radicalism through other people. For example, the farm girl and his relationship with her: no dialogue brought him out of it. But the only thing that did have an effect, in our story, was when he faced death. Then he called for his mother. But there had to be a very strong physical thing that happened through his body. At that point, he didn’t call his imam, he didn’t call out for Allah, he called for his mother, like all children in the world do.
Why opt to tell this story through the experience of a child, versus a teenager or a young adult? Is there a difference between those experiences?
Jean-Pierre: We chose a kid because if we had chosen an adult, the story seemed absolutely impossible to us, because it’s not possible to take an adult out of fanaticism. That was the reality, and that’s what we faced. It seemed that for our story, our young boy is between childhood and adolescence, and that is a time when you’re changing, when you’re discovering the world, and when you’re going out towards the world. And yes, you can make good connections, you can make bad connections, and you start to have ideals about life. Unfortunately, our boy was on a trajectory to have these morbid ideals. But he was passing through a phase, so that seemed to us ideal in terms of the development of the character.
Luc: One thing that Jean-Pierre was also underscoring was that, with all the deaths that had happened—for example, at Bataclan [in 2015], Toulouse [in 2012] and all of the massacres that had taken place—we didn’t feel that, in relation to all of that, having a twenty-year-old [was appropriate]. None of them ever ask for forgiveness from the people who had actually survived those massacres; the ones that are in prison are still entrenched in their beliefs, and feeling that they can go forward. Given all that, and partly out of respect for that and the people that had died, we didn’t think we could show a young adult coming out of his or her radicalism.
Jean-Pierre: We also felt that, by seeing a child that was in the process of leaving his childhood behind, we were showing the movement of life. The process of life. You were seeing the hands of a child. When Ahmed walked or ran, you saw that he had not adjusted to what his body was in the process of becoming; he was between two states. We felt it was important to transmit that feeling of this movement, this flow, of life.
That sense of forward movement is palpable throughout, and seemed not only related to Ahmed’s maturation, but also to a subtle spiritual element as well—which is epitomized by the fact that the film begins with him racing up stairs and ends with him suffering a fall. Do you see a spiritual component to his journey?
Luc: It’s true that, in the beginning, it’s almost as if Ahmed is escaping the camera. As an audience member, you don’t really understand what’s going on at that point. There are elements throughout the film where life sometimes is stronger than death. For instance, the scene with the farm girl, and the glasses, and where you see the movement of the grass, where there are more close-ups. There’s a feeling of life surmounting death. But until the fall, he doesn’t really rise up again. And the fall is a way of bringing him back, and of him accepting the impurity of life. He’s now able to touch another human being, and another woman in particular. He’s come back to what he was through the fall, and through him accepting to go forward and to accept the impurities of life—which are really symbolized by the fact that he’s now able to touch this person that he didn’t want to touch because she was an apostate. That brings him back. He returns to what he was, which is what the mother expressed that she wanted him to be.
Jean-Pierre: When he falls, he falls from the ideology of death, and back into life.