Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne on Young Ahmed, Arabic Teachings, and Taking Religion Seriously

Dardenne Brothers

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.

Both: Yes.

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.

Source: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne on Young Ahmed, Arabic Teachings, and Taking Religion Seriously

Review: Boy without a father

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, is about a teenage boy trying to embrace radical IslamLuc 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.

Source: Boy without a father

Top 150 Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2019: #12. Ahmed – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne 

Ahmed – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Top 150 Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2019: Ahmed – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne. 

Ahmed

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.

Read about the Top 150 at: Top 150 Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2019: #12. Ahmed – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne – IONCINEMA.com

The Dardenne Brothers – Masters of Social Realism

2014

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

Fim Review: ‘The Elephant and the Butterfly’

In “The Elephant and the Butterfly,” Antoine (Thomas Blanchard), mild and bearded, with a look of telegraphed regret, shows up at the home of his former partner, Camille (Judith Chemla), to ask how she’s doing. She laughs in his face, just about choking on her sarcastic chuckles. These two haven’t seen each other in five years, and she, for one, is fluent in the harsher dialect of post-divorce (that is, barely disguised loathing). Since they have a young daughter, Elsa (Lina Doillon), who lives with her mother, we’re curious to see how the hostility will play out. Continue reading “Fim Review: ‘The Elephant and the Butterfly’”

Meetings, moral situations themes of Dardennes’ films

It’s difficult to imagine the Dardennes brothers, who have made a scintillating career out of somber, unadorned verite dramas (L’enfant, The Kid With a Bike, Two Days One Night) playing anything for laughs, but at the end of our chat about their new drama, The Unknown Girl, there was Luc, upon hearing I was from Philadelphia, telling a long set joke via their interpreter based on my home city.

With the publicist glaring daggers at me for getting extra time, he told the joke in several long bursts of French, and in the end, touching as it does on identity politics and psychological complexity, it was a pretty good example of what you would imagine to be Dardennes levity. We met with the pair of white-haired Belgians at the Toronto International Film Festival, where their new film had just had its North American premiere (it’s now streaming on Netflix), as they held forth, mostly through a translator, about the ethics in their films, their dual writing process, and what happens when a businessman coming from New York has to unexpectedly spend a night in Philadelphia back in the ’50s.

Your last two films have to do with personal morality, specifically a path toward doing the right thing, no matter how difficult, and finding a kind of salvation in the process. Was it a conscious decision to systematically address these issues?

Jean-Pierre: It’s true that there’s a similarity between the two films: In both, somebody goes to see other people and it creates a moral situation. In [Two Days, One Night], the question is would I act in solidarity with the woman in front of me; and in [The Unknown Girl], it’s would I tell the truth to that woman? In this film, [protagonist Jenny, played by Adele Haenel], isn’t a judge, but still the characters have to put their self-interest behind them to tell her the truth, and in her guilt of letting somebody die, how does she deal with the question herself? In Two Days, it’s kind of the same moral questioning. We want the audience to question themselves, [make it] part of their own questioning.

Luc: Jenny was obsessed with the unknown girl. Thanks to her naivety, and innocence, we finally learn her name. This investigation is a quest for truth, [to] help her find her place in the world. The inner happiness that you’re talking about, the characters are finding it, but it should also resonate with the audience.

For a lot of people, they derive this inner solace from organized religion: For these two main characters, the films suggest the true path comes from your personal morality. Don’t look up at the heavens; look inside yourself. Is that fair to say?

Jean-Pierre: Don’t look up; but look into my eyes; in your eyes; our eyes. The camera is on the same level as the eyes of the character. We shoot at the human level, just the face of Jenny, the face of passion of the people who she encounters. I think in real life, it is the same: the moral question comes from the meeting, the encounter between the two gazes.

Jenny never acts out of anger, even when others are trying to hurt her. She never turns to rancor. It’s like she’s everyone’s conscience, waiting for people who have done the wrong thing to finally confess to her, almost like a religious figure.

Luc: It was important for us not to transform her into a professional detective, someone who judges others or is violent with them. We tried to build a character who is waiting for answers, but is able to keep silent and not violent. For example, the sequence with Olivier Gourmet, when he wants to hit her, it would have been possible to begin a fight, but we decided no, she’s not like this. She escapes and looks into his eyes with pride, and it’s enough. It was our challenge to build a character like this. It’s so easy to be violent.

I’d like to ask you about your working methodology. How do you work together on a script? Is it like the Coens where one of you sits at the computer and you just roll through it together, or do you work separately and come together to compare notes?

Jean-Pierre: When we make a movie, before writing, we discuss it for a long time, two months, three months, four months. “Yes. No.” You are not agreeing sometimes, but finally we find the same character and situation. It’s after a lot of discussion. On the flight, here in the hotel; not all the time, but often: the real fun. After that we feel the same character, the same age. Not the same face, not this actress or [that one]. No it’s not that. It’s the same feeling, the same feeling. When we have that, we can go.

So you work all this out before you even start?

Jean-Pierre: The beginning of the beginning, yeah.

Thank you.

Luc: You come from?

Philadelphia.

Jean-Pierre: Ah, we don’t know this city, only New York.

It’s a little bit south of there.

Luc: I know a joke from Philadelphia. Not in English. It’s very difficult.

OK?

Luc (via translator): The joke takes place in the ’50s, in the time when America was seen as very racist. There’s a sales representative who had to stop in New York, and he must take a train to Philadelphia. So he finds his own hotel because he has to wake up early in the morning. There’s just one bed left in a room, but there’s another bed where there’s a black person sleeping. He says, “No, I don’t want to sleep in that room, there’s a black person,” but he has no choice he must take the room. He says, “OK, but I want you to wake me up at 4 in the morning. Don’t mistake the two beds, I’m in that bed.” In the meantime, he doesn’t want to stay in the room, so he goes to the bar where people are partying, drinking champagne, laughing. He’s having fun and at some point somebody burns the champagne cork and starts disguising him as a black person. He starts singing a Louis Armstrong song, and he’s so drunk that people have to bring him to his bed in the hotel.

Huh.

Luc (via translator): [The next morning], they wake him up. He jumps out of bed, he has to really rush, take his clothes, run to the train station and jump in the train. He’s “OK, I need to wash my hands and face because it’s the morning.” He goes to the bathroom and sees himself in the mirror and thinks, “the hotel is so stupid they woke up the black person instead of me.” At this moment this racist person has never been so close to his own reality because he thought he was a black person.

Translator: That’s a good Philadelphia story.

MovieStyle on 12/29/2017

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