Dardenne Brothers Deliver a Coming-of-Age Tale of a Young Terrorist
“A true Muslim doesn’t shake a woman’s hand,” says the title character in the first scene of the Dardennes Brothers’ Young Ahmed, a hateful, duplicitous little movie which attempts to disguise its toxic Islamophobia under a superficial veneer of naturalistic humanism. Thirteen year-old Ahmed (newcomer Idir Ben Addi, a talented young performer who will hopefully go on to do fine work in better projects) is another one of the Dardennes’ trademarked wayward youths, but this time he’s given an explicit religious dimension. Ahmed, you see, was a once peaceful, westernized little scamp enjoying video games and colouring books, but he has recently become radicalized by an imam working in a local corner store.
Introduced in one of the Dardennes now-rote in media res rough tracking shots, Ahmed hides in an isolated classroom of his junior high school to complain over mobile about his infidel teacher, Madame Inès (Myriem Akheddiou). Briefly after being caught, Ahmed excuses himself to go to his daily prayer session. Madame Inès begrudgingly obliges, but first pressures him to shake her hand before he leaves. Skin-to-skin contact with a woman, Ahmed reminds her (and it is implied that she already knows), is forbidden by his religious beliefs. In this moment, however, Inès is treated as a kindly matriarchal figure attempting to bring Ahmed out of his shell, while Ahmed is portrayed as a sullen, immature youth who has adopted the values of fundamentalist Islam the same way another teenager may go through a Goth phase.
This is a characteristic moment in a film which treats Islam as an essentially (and pointlessly) violent, misogynistic, anti-Semitic religion. Ahmed lives in a small Belgian village with his doting single mother and indefinite number of siblings (Young Ahmed is strangely vague in its detailing of Ahmed’s home life), but despite living in an idyllically rendered Western society, he is drawn to the lure of fundamentalist Islam — an ideology that is removed from its wider social and political grounding, and presented as an anarchic system of belief primarily motivated by an inexplicable hatred of western freedoms.
The obnoxious Ahmed begins lambasting his mother for her light drinking, his sister for wearing revealing outfits, and his Madame Inès for dating a Jewish man (the fact that the Dardennes glibly equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism should give you an idea of their myopic and deeply prejudiced view of the Muslim faith). So enraged is he, in fact, that he launches a violent attack on Inès with a knife, a stunt which results in his incarceration in a juvenile detention centre. Inside, he is subjected to intensive psychological examinations by angelic counselors who try to convince him to renounce his religious beliefs; when Ahmed excuses himself from a mandatory therapeutic farming session to pray, it’s treated as a regression (the film is unable to imagine the possibility of somebody living both a peaceful, tolerant life and by the codes of the Muslim faith).
Along the way there is a ridiculous and under-cooked sub-plot which sees Ahmed spark up a flirtation with Louise (Victoria Bluck), a one-dimensional, perfect atheist girl who Ahmed violently rejects after she refuses his attempts to force her to convert to Islam so that they may be together. Eventually, the authorities deem Ahmed sufficiently reformed to be reunited with Inès, and the Dardennes pave the way for the sort of classical Christian redemption narrative which has dominated their output since Rosetta, but takes on a deeply insidious air when forced upon the coming-of-age story of a fundamentalist Muslim.
The very idea of two white, Western filmmakers making a feature about Islam is enough to raise eyebrows, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot take a sensitive, sophisticated approach to the material. The Swallows of Kabul, which was screened in the same festival, was helmed by two white, French directors, but they managed to portray the modern Islamic state with a great deal of nuance. The crucial difference between the two is that The Swallows of Kabul treats extremism as a corruption of the Quran, while devoting the majority of the screen time to the lives of noble, intelligent individuals who also live by the teachings of traditional Islam; meanwhile Young Ahmed treats religious violence as being inherently embedded within the Quran.
So, we get a lot of menacing sequences of Ahmed dressed in religious garb and kneeling before a prayer rug as a cheap way to drum up suspense, and several images of the boy tucking a little knife into his jacket next to his copy of the Quran. Given the subject matter, you may expect the Dardennes to at least attempt to tackle the pressing issue of rampant Islamophobia in contemporary society, especially given its prominence in the education system. Instead, Young Ahmed is likely to only contribute to this paranoia, framing western fear of Muslim subversion as a natural and rational response to a very dangerous threat. The recurring scenes of Ahmed being forced to walk through a metal detector by security conjures images of the invasive methods of surveillance Muslims were forced to endure after the 9/11 bombings, yet the Dardennes irresponsibly portray this as a necessary process in service of ensuring the protection of society; Ahmed is, after all, actually concealing a violent weapon in all of these sequences.
At last year’s Cannes festival, Jean-Luc Godard presented his masterful video essay The Image Book, a film which explores the persistent vilification of Arab people in western cinema. At one point, Godard observes that “There is a real contrast between the violence of the act of representation and the internal calm of representation itself.” I was reminded of this quote throughout Young Ahmed, a film which positions itself in the tradition of socially-conscious, character-driven, realist cinema, but is, in its own quiet way, just as insidious in its portrayal of the Muslim faith as anything by Paul Greengrass or Michael Bay.