Young Ahmed movie review: Belgian film about a Muslim teenager is gripping, but has nothing important to say
Young Ahmed feels oddly disconnected from its own premise
Young Ahmed was screened at the on-going Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival 2019.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
There was understandable anxiety around the premise of Le Jeune Ahmed, the latest effort by Cannes Film Festival mainstays Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The film focuses on a young Muslim teenager, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), who’s pushed to violence by his radical Imam, against his kindly Muslim school teacher in their small Belgian town.
The concerns, as I’m sure you can imagine, stemmed from whether the elderly Belgian duo would approach the subject matter with enough deftness, given the rampant anti-Muslim sentiments festering in Europe (and nearly everywhere Muslims are a minority). The French-Belgian co-production won the Dardennes their first Prix de la mise en scène, the Best Director Award at Cannes — though they won the Palme d’Or for Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2002) — and so, the counter-argument was to wait and see, and to let these cinematic masters endow the story with a nuanced take on radicalism, rather than assuming it would demonize its young protagonist, or all of Islam.
Which way does the film ultimately swing? Well, in neither direction, really. It doesn’t seem to have a fully-formed perspective on violent ideology, and it rarely, if ever, explores the corners of Ahmed’s radicalization or from where it stems. It features moderate Muslims a-plenty for contrast — most of the characters are Muslim, in fact — but it ultimately takes the viewpoint of a neutral outsider when it comes to the film’s larger social context. The Dardennes and cinematographer Benoît Dervaux’s camera sits on the sidelines of community meetings, as Muslim townspeople debate how best to teach their children Arabic, and how to preserve their culture in a foreign land that’s often hostile to them (although one thing the film severely lacks is portraying or contextualizing this hostility).
However, the filmmakers take a tender approach to Ahmed himself.
He antagonises the people running these meetings for suggesting music as cultural learning, the same way he antagonizes his single mother (Claire Bodson) for drinking, or his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) for trying to shake his hand. But his frustrations, while extreme, are portrayed with utmost emotional clarity. The Dardennes love Ahmed, even though they approach him from afar; they seem to love the way actor Idir Ben Addi moves nervously within the frame, and the way he fiddles with his glasses and stares down at the floor in confusion — which is most of the time.
At the behest of fiery young Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), a clearly manipulative presence, Ahmed attempts to stab Inès for preaching a tolerant (and in Youssouf’s mind, corrupted) version of Islam. Youssouf is arrested and Ahmed is sent to a juvenile reform facility, while a shaken Inès attempts to understand Ahmed’s actions. In some other film, one attempting to unearth or gain insight into Ahmed’s perspective, this would make up the entirety of the plot. But here, in Young Ahmed, it’s the Dardennes’ initial premise, and the rest of the film plays out in its aftermath.
Beyond this first act, the film focuses on Ahmed as he’s kept busy in the juvenile facility — with chores, routines and occasional psychological evaluations. While the camera barely leaves Ahmed’s side, the Dardennes seem to share the perspective of Inès, even though she barely features after her own attempted murder; she wants to understand him and be around him, despite her trepidations. While we’re made privy to Ahmed’s decisions, like sharpening and hiding a toothbrush in his room at the facility as he plots another murder, we’re never made privy to where they come from, other than a misplaced sense of anger.
And yet, this seems to be the Dardennes’ point. None of Ahmed’s caseworkers, kind though they may be, attempt to get to the root of his ideology either — are they even equipped to do so? — which results in Ahmed being left afloat, alone with his thoughts and with his lingering anger. The film proves to be intense and unnerving at times, as Ahmed sneaks his way around the rules of the facility in order to plan his next move. It feels almost like a heist film, only instead of cracking a safe, the objective is murder, and the stakes are a young boy’s soul.
In other, more tranquil moments, like when Ahmed is conscripted to work on a nearby farm, the film takes a tender, coming-of-age approach, even to Ahmed’s aggression. He develops a mutual crush with a white, Christian girl in his vicinity, and while his verbal responses to her seem strange and callous — he demands that she convert if they want to have a summer fling! — the focus remains on Idir Ben Addi’s confused young face, as he bravely imbues Ahmed with devastating insecurity.
The Dardennes don’t seem to have much care for the specifics of violent ideology. They don’t seem concerned with framing it within broader social constructs, or concerned with how that ideology is molded, or the violence and oppression to which it’s molded in response. In that sense, Young Ahmed feels oddly disconnected from its own premise. Ahmed’s story is isolated — though perhaps rightly so, since he spends most of the film behind closed doors, with few people able, or willing to reach out to him.
Where the Dardennes’ concerns do lie, is with the machinations of burdened youth, which they capture in all its rhythm and fury. The film may not have much to say, but it’s a riveting watch regardless.
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