It may have taken nearly 25 years, but the typically admired Dardenne brothers have turned controversial and divisive–which, history tells us, is a common consequence of portraying radical Islam. How amply they’ve addressed the topic in Young Ahmed is not quite my territory–those seeking a discussion would be well-advised to read Soheil Rezayazdi’s Filmmaker interview–but in psychological portraiture it represents a revitalization from 2016’s narrative-dependent (albeit undervalued) The Unknown Girl. As played by Idir Ben Addi, Ahmed marks one of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s most fascinating creations.
I was fortunate enough to sit with the duo at last fall’s New York Film Festival and pore over Young Ahmed‘s particulars: its conforming and deviating from the Dardenne visual palette, its reliance on Muslim communities, and how to gauge whether or not an audience’s response is in fact correct.
Thanks to Nicholas Elliott, who provided on-site translation.
The Film Stage: Let’s start with an easy topic I don’t think you’ve addressed: just after Ahmed’s been plucked from his normal life and is en route to the reeducation center, we hear a pop song on the radio. Maybe I’m forgetting something, but this is the first time I can recall any pop or contemporary music appearing in one of your films.
Luc Dardenne: Not the first time.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We have three groups in Lorna’s Silence. It’s true that it’s a different relationship to music, though, because in Lorna it’s when she goes into the apartment and Claudy has put on music. That happens three times. Here, playing the music is different. In Lorna’s Silence, the music we chose is Belgian and Asian.
Luc: In Young Ahmed, the use of music–as you probably know–you’re not allowed to listen to music when you’re radicalized. In this case we have the music because the social worker says to Ahmed, “Ah, before you would’ve told me I can’t play the music. The fact that you’re not tells me you’ve developed.” That’s the use of music there, and we chose that particular title because it’s something the actor who plays the social worker liked. So we said, “Why not?”
I love the sequence where Ahmed’s teacher leads a debate about learning Arabic from the Quran or a more contemporary, conversational style. More than being simply engaging, it’s a conversation I’ve never heard, never known about. In this writing-directing process, what are outlets for ensuring authenticity–is it speaking to people from those communities?
Jean-Pierre: I don’t know how things work here in the United States–in fact, I’m not even sure how it is in France, but I imagine it’s similar to how it is in Belgium. In Belgium, the teaching of Arabic has led to great debate among Arab people, whether they’re Muslim or non-Muslim. The not-even-fundamentalist teaching of Arabic, but the traditional, is that you learn this language through the Quran. It’s the sacred way of learning the language, and therefore you learn it at a mosque with the imam. As Luc was saying, they can’t learn this language in their family, because most Arabic families in Belgium do not speak “classical” Arabic. Besides that, there has been put into place–both through organizations, non-profits, and official Belgian public-education system–classes that teach, if I can say, “secular” Arabic. This other way of teaching Arabic was also set up because people started to notice that the teaching of Arabic in the classical sense took place in Mosques–some of which were also places of indoctrination, especially for little girls. So we did research on that. At the same time, we were already aware of this because we know people who are involved in teaching Arabic in this more contemporary, non-Quran manner.
Your regular camera operator, Benoît Dervaux, has made the transition to cinematographer. Why? And did you find anything unique about his approach? Your style is so well-ingrained, and I didn’t initially realize you’d made a DP change.
Luc: Good that you didn’t notice. [Laughs] Because Benoît Dervaux was both the camera operator and DP on this film–the reason being that our regular DP, Alain Marcoen, was ill. Alain Marcoen asked if it was possible for him not to do this film. We were very sad about it and asked Benoît if he could do both, and he did. For us it was a little difficult at times because we like to talk to our camera operator during the shot and let the DP do whatever they want, then give our opinion after the fact–therefore let the light be designed from the basis of the frame. But with Benoît, the frame is designed, or comes from, the light, because he knew where he’d place his instrument. We generally work on developing light design from what the frame is. Here we had to find something between the two, which at times was challenging for us, but in general I think our shot construction was how it’s always been. Normally, we work with Benoît as our camera operator and prepare the frame with him; then we tell the lighting designer–and this is a little exaggerated, what I’m going to say–”Figure out the light. Work it out so it’s invisible.” What we want is to not underline the places where things are going to happen, where actors are going to do things. We don’t want to announce the acting space. In our films the light is a little gray, neutral.
The opening scene follows Ahmed through his classroom, which necessitates these very quick twists and turns of the camera, which got me thinking of physical geography. How much are location selections dependent on the ability to move your camera freely, as you clearly prefer, and have you ever turned down a place because it’s restrictive to your visual style?
Jean-Pierre: The choice of sets for this film was guided by several things. Notably: as much as possible, we wanted the places we used to have a role, so to speak, in real life. Most of the places you see in the film–with the exception of the mosque–continue to be used in that way after we shot there. To take the specific case of the school, it’s what we call “a homework school”–an after-school place where students come when they’re having difficulties with not being able to study at home because of space or problems with their parents. It’s true that the space of the school, we filmed it as it exists. These two rooms in which you see Ahmed circulate as he’s leaving inspired the mise-en-scene; they inspired the direction. In general, we like complicated spaces that provide obstacles to overcome. Sometimes we don’t overcome them. We like difficulties with the space: it inspires us. It helps us to do our work. Luc will tell me if I’m wrong, because it goes back a year now when we filmed this scene, but I think it was the space that gave us the idea for how we filmed it. It generally went with our intuition of the film, which is that we’re trying to catch or capture this character who’s always escaping us.
You saw the massive, almost-to-capacity crowd at Alice Tully last night. The line where Ahmed asks Louise if she’d be willing to become a Muslim after she kisses him earned a big laugh.
This surprised me. I felt it was a great dramatic turn, troubling, sad, and true to the conflict of this character. Did you have a particular response in mind for that line? How do you feel about people responding positively, but not in the way you intended?
Luc: When we wrote the script, the question we asked ourselves about this kiss, this transgression, is: would Ahmed fall in love and let desire speak and leave fanaticism behind? Or if he became a fanatic, how could he transform this and make this sin somehow less serious, less bad? What we said to resolve this problem–how to maintain his love and desire for this girl, and at the same time make his sin less bad–he could ask the girl to become a Muslim, because then the sin would be less severe. On top of that, he would have converted someone. He’s quite self-confident, so he probably thinks he could convince someone to join him in fanaticism. That allowed us to take religion seriously, because we don’t want to show that you can just forget fanaticism. Fanaticism is not something that you do from 5-7; you don’t do it on office hours. It’s something that stays. And it’s true: people laugh everywhere when they hear that line. At Cannes they laughed, because it’s a kid, or young boy, asking a girl to marry him. That makes people smile. At Cannes–the only place we watched the film–we felt it wasn’t mocking laughter, but friendly laughter. It was with the character; they weren’t condemning him. But you can never predict audience reactions. We’ve had some surprises. I don’t remember them anymore, but I know there have been some.
Your filmography has covered a wide spectrum of issues: class, race, labor, faith, poverty, and now radicalization. Do you have a sense of subjects you still want to cover, that continue compelling you?
Jean-Pierre: What we try to do in our work is interest ourselves first in a character. That’s the starting point. A character who, in some way, corresponds with our era, and we try to understand through this character what’s happening today. We never try to understand with a subject, but with a character. Here, we had started with the idea of making the film about a young Muslim who’s 18 or 19 years old. We realized we wouldn’t be able to tell what we wanted to because, as we said last night, it would not be possible in the span of a single film to show a fanatic leaving fanaticism–that wouldn’t be credible. It wouldn’t be possible with a 19-year-old, which is why we decided to go with a boy.
Luc: What we tried to do was love this character to the end, to get him out of the night he was plunged into. We tried to find a way by which he would change–that was his fall at the end. We tried other options, but they weren’t credible. They were too romantic or too novelistic, too much like stories–to get him out of fanaticism through other characters, like the girl.
Jean-Pierre: It had to be through the body–it had to be this discombobulated, broken body.