The latest from Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers is a well-intentioned yet misguided story of teenage radicalization
The films of the Dardenne Brothers are defined by a social realism where silence speaks volumes. Mainly set in their native Belgium, those captured by the Dardennes are often caught under the heels of society, and reckon with situations that seem quiet on the surface, but are life-or-death for all involved. Their output over the last decade has continued this streak of powerful films–The Kid with a Bike follows an abandoned child on a desperate search for a bicycle that he believes might unite him with his missing father, and Two Days, One Night follows one factory worker’s desperate attempt to convince her co-workers to give up their holiday bonuses in order to keep her own job. Throughout, both films feature characters who are constantly undercut by what life throws at them, but fight to keep going at all costs — exposing a beating heart of morality that seems to have been forgotten by those around the protagonists. The last decade has seen the Dardennes continue their international superstardom, with their last, Two Days, One Night earning its star Marion Cotillard an Oscar nomination. Their latest, Young Ahmed, earned the brothers the Best Director prize at Cannes–but not without its share of controversy.
The film follows the titular Ahmed, a Belgian Muslim pre-teen who has fallen under the influence of a radical imam. Desperate to fulfill his ideas of jihad and martyrdom already achieved by his deceased cousin, Ahmed tries to murder his after-school teacher, a target for trying to teach her students Arabic outside of the Quran. He fails–and after he’s abandoned by his imam for the rigors of the rehabilitative justice system, Ahmed’s devotion to his cause clashes with an emerging opposing morality.
Like their previous work, the Dardennes show a remarkable empathy for Ahmed–from his devotion to his faith, to his awkward brushes with secular life enjoyed by his other peers. The camera is magnetized to Ahmed as he tries to escape the frame — and the other characters flit in and out of Ahmed’s life as they try to impose their sense of what ideological reclamation means upon him. And while his actions range from the misguided to the chilling, Young Ahmed does try to seek some rationale behind its protagonist’s alienating actions.
But unlike the Dardennes’ previous work, which explores the struggles of its characters with a matched rudderless, unpredictable adventurism, Young Ahmed treats its subject matter from a troubling place of foregone moral conclusions. While the camera may be attached to Ahmed throughout, there’s no denying its condemnation of radicalization of all kinds. While morally correct the judgment against terrorism of any kind may be, this point of view clouds Young Ahmed from exploring the more nuanced angles of the situations Ahmed faces as a religious child of immigrants amid an increasingly secular Europe where racial and religious tensions have become increasingly pervasive. Its angle is interesting at first glance — exploring how one finds themselves led out of radicalization rather than repeat the origins of how one falls under its sway. But the Dardennes’ pointed lack of a deeper, nuanced context for Ahmed’s actions–as well as a lack of an opposing, non-radicalized practice of Islam outside of stray lines of dialogue–exposes Young Ahmed the dangers of overgeneralizing both Ahmed’s predicament and the religion he’s devoted himself to.
And, as much as I love the Dardennes for their insightful films on the human condition — it feels like the nuance that’s missing from Young Ahmed is one that cannot be attained when this subject matter is approached this way. In an interview on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of the film, the Dardennes discuss how the film was inspired by homegrown terrorist acts such as those against Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan, followed by their struggle to rationalize a de-radicalization story featuring an adult protagonist. It was disappointing to hear that, despite the extensive research and organic character development process undertaken alongside the actors in developing the scenario, that such naturalistic directors would apply such a reductive reverse-engineering to this kind of subject matter. As such, Young Ahmed feels like it’s driven to justify a previously-held belief, one not shared by its protagonist, rather than earnestly explore the ones that drive Ahmed to do what he’s compelled to.
With the arrival of Young Ahmed on Blu-ray and DVD in the United States, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of conversation it starts — not just about radicalization and the origins of fanaticism, but in how those who choose to tell these stories approach such delicate subject matter.
Kino Lorber presents Young Ahmed in a 1080p HD transfer that preserves the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD surround and 2.0 stereo French/Arabic audio tracks.
Young Ahmed is the second Dardennes feature to be shot on digital, following Two Days, One Night. Kino’s Blu-ray transfer captures the film’s rich, roving frames with an appreciable abundance of detail and lack of any significant crushing or pixelation. The naturalistic aesthetic of the Dardennes’ work lends itself to a quieter sound design, but the layering of dialogue and diegetic sound remained crisp and distinct in this transfer.
- Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: In this brief New York-based interview, the writing-directing team discusses the challenges of tackling an experience that is markedly different than their own, the research involved in creating a workable scenario, and their experiences working with the film’s young actor, Idir Ben Addi.
- Theatrical Trailer for Young Ahmed.
Young Ahmed is now on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber.