Directed by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Written by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Othmane Moumen and Amine Hamidou
The Dardenne brothers are realist and humanist, it is their raison d’etre. Therefore material like Young Ahmed will be immediately divisive. A young Muslim boy, 13 years old, from small town Belgium is radicalised by his imam. The young man is impressionable and vulnerable, like all young men. Under his imam’s tutelage, he, unfortunately, becomes misogynistic; he believes that dog licks are impure.
Reviewing a Dardenne film is tricky, everything is exact and nothing is unimportant. Therefore, to venture into any kind of spoiler territory will take away significantly from the viewer’s experience of the film. We are given some context to Ahmed’s new found, extremist ideology. His father is AWOL and his cousin is suggested to be a jihadist martyr. His teacher wants him to learn Arabic through popular song, an act of heresy according to his imam.
We are forced to accompany Ahmed through this 90 minute film. He is in almost every frame. There are things we come to like about Ahmed, but the audience can never reconcile this with his extremist views and impossible moral standards he has set for himself and others. The genius of the Dardenne brothers, two-time Palme D’or winners (Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005)), is that they pose delicate and philosophical questions in a seemingly simplistic way. Yet, there is nothing simplistic about trying to make Western audiences care somewhat for Ahmed, the latest in a long line of lost children the Dardenne’s are so interested in bringing to the screen.
Idir Ben Addi brings and certain sweetness and fragility to the title role. This helps the filmmakers’ cause. The balance he manages to strike between nerdy, childlike innocence and sheer determination to follow out his violent goals is terrifying and fascinating to watch. The Dardennes do not demonise or sensationalise. They trust their audience to pick up on plot information through mise-en-scene and a natural interest in the characters and the world they inhabit. The result is a profound and intellectual cinematic experience.