Sitting among the New York critics at a screening of Young Ahmed, a film about Islam
The press screenings for the New York Film Festival have begun, and on Monday I screened a new film by the Dardenne brothers. The film, called Young Ahmed, isabout a teenage boy trying to embrace radical Islam. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are considered the “Coen brothers of Europe,” and we published a feature last year on their spiritually infused films.
Many of the films the Dardennes write and produce focus on the relationship between fathers and sons. Often they focus on middle-school-age boys struggling with their identity. In Young Ahmed,our middle-school protagonist’s father is absent, and his mom sighs at one point that Ahmed wouldn’t be running after extremist ideologies if his father were around. It’s a fascinating and complex film, and fits in just right with the Dardennes’ other films about boys with absent fathers, such as The Kid With a Bike.
But at the end of the New York screening, the (white) critic in front of me dismissed the film as a portrayal of Islam from “problematic white men.” Another reviewer afterward called it a “hateful, duplicitous little movie” full of “toxic Islamophobia.” That misses completely, I think, the religious nuance of what the Dardennes are doing here—their films tell the spiritual stories of Belgium, not just Catholic Belgium. And Young Ahmed depicts many different strains of Islam if the grouchy critics would pay closer attention.
But I shouldn’t be surprised if the New York reception of the film is overly political or self-righteous. What the Dardennes gave us is another philosophical pinprick about our own identities: our perceived righteousness and need for forgiveness.
Top 150 Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2019: Ahmed – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne.
The Dardenne Bros. turn their socially minded lens to religious extremism with their eleventh narrative feature, Ahmed. As usual, the Dardennes are collaborating with production company Les Films du Fleuve, returning to a template which saw them find early success by using a cast of unknowns. Having twice won the Palme d’Or (Rosetta, 1999; L’enfant, 2005), the duo are the most celebrated directors to have come from Belgium, making any of their projects of instant note. Besides their Palme wins, their offerings almost always leave Cannes with a major prize, including the Ecumenical Jury Prize for 2002’s Le fils, Best Screenplay for Lorna’s Silence in 2008, the Grand Jury Prize for 2011’s The Kid with a Bike, and again the Ecumenical Jury Prize for 2014’s Two Days, One Night (which also resulted in an Oscar nod for Marion Cotillard). Their 2016 feature The Unknown Girl (read review) was their only effort to leave the festival unrewarded.
The Dardennes turn to another topical issue with Ahmed, religious fundamentalism. While details are scarce, the plot concerns a young man who plots to kill his teacher following his extremist interpretation of the Quran. Early details are reminiscent of similar territory explored by Rachid Bouchareb in his 2016 Belgian set The Road to Istanbul, which explores a mother’s journey to search for her radicalized teenager.
Rear Window. 2014. Filmmaking brothers Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne are known on the world film circuit for their social realist dramas, set in the former industrial city of Liege in Belgium. Film critic Emilie Bickerton talks us through their early career and their later obsession with the plight of working class people in their home city. teleSUR
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