Rita di Santo reviews Young Ahmed, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes recently
Like Britain’s Ken Loach, Belgium’s most renowned filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make movies bursting with concern for the struggles of the working class and the most vulnerable in society. Their protagonists often teenagers who find themselves in the midst of a dysfunctional economic system, misjudged and alienated. Young Ahmed, the Dardennes' latest, premiered to great acclaim at this year’s Cannes film festival, bringing the Best Director prize to the brothers.
The movie is about a 13-year-old Muslim caught between moral crisis and emotional change. Ahmed’s mother struggles to understand how, in only one month, his attention has turned from his PlayStation to the Koran, while a local extremist imam pushes him to follow the example of his cousin and become a jihadi fighter. His radicalisation leads him to refuse to shake hands with his thoughtful teacher Inès “because women are impure” and Inès’s boyfriend is “a Jew”, but Inès understands Ahmed - who is also affected by dysplasia. When Ahmed tells the imam that Inès teaches Arabic and Koranic verses using music, the imam denounces her and Ahmed responds with a violent assault. Arrested and committed to youth custody, where therapeutic treatments appear to be working miracles, he convinces the authorities that he’s sufficiently reformed for a “making amends” encounter with Inès herself. While in the custodial centre, Ahmed works on a farm where he meets another teenager, Louise. There is a spark, but when she kisses him, he is wracked with guilt. He asks her to become a Muslim so his sin will be less serious. But the tremors of love make him to lose control, and violence could again be his outlet.
It’s an intense drama rendered shocking by the youth of its violent radicalised protagonist, a child, an innocent, abandoned and manipulated. The conclusion shows the Dardenne brothers at their best. Their style is austere, methodical, simple, hand-held camerawork, use of available light, absence of non-diegetic music, the observation of everyday tasks, and a sense of moral weightiness centring on a taciturn protagonist.
The Dardennes offer no answers, but make clear who is to blame, casting the teenager as victim and revealing a series of abuses, including psychological abuse from the imam, who constantly lectures and manipulates Ahmed on how to live his life and what is a sin. Other institutions are cruel, such as the rehabilitation centre, which puts Ahmed to work on a farm, where though only 13 he is treated as an adult worker; or the psychiatrist who must determine if Ahmed “is a danger to society”.
The film alludes to some of the challenges of integration for Arabic-speaking child refugees. The form of Arabic taught comes from the Koran, which is ancient Arabic, but only modern Arabic, a completely different language, would help them get a job. They also need to master French, but few are familiar with the language. This movie provides a powerful insight into the life of a teenager that is both sympathetic and urgent.
Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.