Cannes 2019: Young Ahmed Review
From the moment it was announced, there has been skepticism in the air about Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest film, a story following a young boy radicalised by a Jihadist worldview and inspired to commit murder. The sibling duo have directed countless fantastic films focusing on characters on the wrong side of the law, documenting with a simple humanity, if not giving themselves away to empathy so easily. But when it comes to depicting such a controversial subject, that has caused numerous harmful stereotypes in the media and a subsequent resurgence of far right politics, could the brothers be trusted to examine an issue rife in a culture outside of their own, without resorting to problematic stereotypes that damn a whole religion?
The answer is both yes and no. It’s unlikely that Young Ahmed will inspire the breathless think pieces condemning its portrayal of Muslim extremism, but their efforts to clearly explain that this worldview is shared by only the slimmest minority (and is widely condemned by the Muslim community on the whole) is somewhat half-hearted. I was left thinking about Claire Denis’ recent quote about how problematic behaviour can be depicted without justification as directors aren’t social workers - and how badly it reflected on me that I wish this work of social realism had bothered to educate itself more about the wider Muslim community instead of being solely fascinated by its fascistic minority.
When we are introduced to 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) he is one month into a new way of life. He’s taken down the posters from his bedroom wall, stopped playing video games and started embracing a more conservative, religious way of life after starting to visit a new imam - changing his behaviour right down to refusing to shake his female teacher’s hand. His imam lectures him on radical beliefs, but warns him to avoid acting upon these until Jihad is announced; Ahmed instead gets a knife and attempts to murder his female teacher, for the supposed crime of dating a Jewish person while teaching students Arabic. He’s sent away to a correctional facility for two months, where his newfound beliefs are put into question by everybody in his orbit - including a girl who develops a crush on him, whose feelings cause Ahmed to struggle adhering to his strict religious beliefs.
After a long reign as the finest social realist filmmakers in European cinema, the Dardennes have significantly lost their momentum with their past couple of efforts. The Unknown Girl was a stale attempt to tell a Hitchcockian thriller in their stripped down style, and here, their noble attempts to neuter a potentially incendiary subject have effectively stripped the drama of any interest. In trying to neuter such problematic subject matter, to explore the issue without ruffling any feathers, they’ve effectively caught themselves between a rock and a hard place; it’s not as problematic as it could be (even if their attempts to show not all Muslims share these beliefs are half-hearted and restricted to act one), but also nowhere near as dramatically engaging as it should be. The directors have long been able to create rich portraits of people outside their own privileged bubble - Young Ahmed acts as the rare film in their back catalogue that required more first hand knowledge of the subject being dealt with.
After an opening act that flirts with problematic themes, accidentally suggesting the radical worldview is the Muslim majority purely by omission of all but a tiny handful of rational voices, Young Ahmed slowly succumbs to being a character study existing firmly outside the headspace of its titular character. The Dardennes attempt to create tension as to whether or not he will act upon his violent beliefs, but this is somewhat undermined by the uncharacteristically meandering approach to the middle section of the story. We follow Ahmed on his daily life at the correctional facility and volunteering at a farm, the film eventually deciding to simply observe the monotony rather than explore the character with any depth. For filmmakers who have previously been experts at creating stomach churning tension from the mundane, it’s odd that with an inherently dramatic narrative at hand, they move in the opposite direction when constructing the narrative.