In June 2020, the Belgian Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s banning of religious garments at universities is indeed lawful, and does not violate the freedom of religion. No religion was ever specified, yet it is a blatant attempt to suppress the rights of Muslim women. Many far-right Belgian politicians celebrated the ruling, while some on the left have criticised politician’s outward support of the Black Lives Matter movement while Islamophobia perpetuates and worsens.
Belgian auteur brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have elected to stick their oars in with their latest directorial effort, Young Ahmed, which tells the story of a bi-racial thirteen year old boy drawn into Islamic extremism. The Dardennes have been darlings of the festival circuit since their fifth film, Rosetta, won the Palme d’Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. The pair have since been awarded enough trophies to fill both of their mantelpieces and then some, including another Palme d’Or, a Grand Prix, and an Oscar nomination for Marion Cotillard in the sparse but searing social realist drama Two Days, One Night. Young Ahmed is no exception, bagging them Best Director in Cannes in 2019, yet it has received the most mixed reviews of their career, with many questioning the morality of this story being told by two sixty-something white men.
Such criticism is very fair; the Dardenne brothers are not unsympathetic towards their thirteen year old protagonist, but neither are they very interested in his perspective. Ahmed (a solid Idir Ben Addi) attempts to stab his supposedly blasphemous Arabic teacher having been influenced by a militant imam and is quickly imprisoned in a juvenile centre, where various ‘kindly’ white people, including his own mother, attempt to deradicalise him. We can piece together how and why Ahmed might have ended up on the cusp of violence (a glimpse of a photo of an absent father indicates a life-changing loss) and imagine that his personality has become consumed by radicalism, but he’s too blank to be compelling. His quietness and studiousness is ruptured by rage a handful of times, but he is never given the opportunity to articulate his own faith, leaving him more of a device than a fully-rounded character.
As part of his rehabilitation Ahmed is reluctantly taken to a farm by his case worker, and isn’t immediately won over by the fluffy bunnies and other animals he’s encouraged to touch. But the pretty farmer’s daughter Louise (Victoria Bluck) is determined to break through his emotional barriers, and there’s a cringeworthy suggestion that Ahmed could be happy if only he accepted the friendship of these nice white people and frolicked in Belgium’s pastoral glory. This feels especially tone deaf considering he spends the vast majority of the film cut off from his own community.
The Dardennes’ observational style worked so beautifully in Two Days, One Night, where the viewer is forced to watch Marion Collitard’s Sandra endure the indignity of begging her colleagues for her job over and over again, but here it manages to feel both distant and intrusive. We bear witness to Ahmed’s routines of study, prayer and ablutions, but the camera constantly feels like an outside observer forcing its way in and marvelling at the otherness of it all. This naturally mirrors the white gaze of the vast majority of critics, and probably a significant portion of its potential audience.
To see Young Ahmed is to be reminded of one’s own knowledge and understanding, or lack of, the Muslim experience within a majority white Christian nation, and seems designed for a left-leaning audience to sigh over, rather than truly concerned with its own protagonist.
Young Ahmed is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from August 7.
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