Young Ahmed, the latest feature from the Belgian writer-director brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which took the Cannes prize for Best Director, is very much a Dardenne film. It features the style and approach of all of their films: handheld, intimate camerawork; an intense focus on a limited number of characters and the daily texture of their lives; an elliptical development of narrative that builds as much through a character’s body language and routine as their dialogue; an interest in how a particular individual is often at the mercy of a larger system; a payoff that resides more in the character’s psychology or emotions than in a plot resolution.
It’s a style that aligns both in content and in form with what we might call social realism. At their best, the Dardennes present us with characters who do not seem to be living in a story at all but with real people who have somehow fallen into one, and the camera has just happened to catch them in it. At their best, too, their films achieve an emotional and psychological richness and complexity, a sense of the depth of human heart and mind, and human pain and joy, without the grand gestures of an obvious plot structure.
It becomes easier to see the bones and careful construction of a Dardenne plot, perhaps, the more of their films one watches, for, of course, there is one, and each character beat always does lead to a particular kind of emotional climax, a climax that often typically strips the pretenses and armor away from the central character.
Seeing the plot and its rather typical Dardenne payoff isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the brothers’ particular approach, so dependent on the minutiae of the daily life of a character, may feel wanting in some cases if an attempted hyper-realism of character falls flat.
In the case of Young Ahmed, we are dropped into the life of a Belgian Muslim teen boy, after, under the influence of an imam, he has already become radicalized by the time we meet him. We then watch as, early on in the film, he carries out a plan — or attempts to carry out a plan — to kill his schoolteacher, a woman who the imam has told Ahmed is a dangerous corrupting influence, an affront to the Koran, because of her decision to teach modern Arabic to her students through pop songs. Ahmed’s clumsy attempt to stab his teacher fails, and he is sent to a sort of juvenile detention, where he lives with other boys, and, closely shadowed by a caregiver, eventually goes to a farm to work, helping the family with their daily tasks, a part of the system’s effort to reform him. He meets regularly with a psychologist, too, whose job it is to assess the level of his repentance and reform.
One of the most compelling things about the film is its depiction of this particular arm of the Belgian system of justice Ahmed finds himself in. It does seem to be a system that takes Ahmed’s youth into account; it is not purely punitive or seemingly unnecessarily cruel. While still keeping the boys locked in their rooms at night and keeping them at all times under a watchful eye, the efforts of the system seem geared towards reform and towards the development of relationships and of interests that might help the boys re-enter society. The interest here lies with the fact that a system, which seems relatively progressive, liberal-minded, well-designed, and aimed towards producing well-adjusted citizens, still fails. At least, it seems to fail in the case of Ahmed, who appears to continue to adhere to his imam’s teaching, despite the best, most compassionate efforts of those around him. The situation points to an important question that I think any civil-minded citizen must ask: what happens when even a system, designed with all of the best and most compassionate intentions, still fails? It suggests, without didacticism, that every system needs constant reassessment and reform and that every system still contains individuals who must not be treated as part of monolith.
The film’s heart though is with Ahmed himself; the system is only tangential to him. And this is where the Dardennes’s classic style feels particularly wanting. They do beautifully capture, in certain moments, Ahmed’s youthful awkwardness, both physical and emotional awkwardness. We are left to sit in the awkwardness of the these moments without the kind of comment or tension relief that mainstream cinema so often gives us: we see them, feel them, and they become part of the painful very real texture of who Ahmed is.
But Ahmed remains, in many ways, a mystery to us as viewers. Many of the Dardennes’s usual cast of characters do remain a mystery to some extent, but there is, with their best-formed characters an emotional rawness, complexity, and depth that is eventually clear. Such is not the case, at least for me, with Ahmed. His expression is blank almost all of the time, and we do not get even an expressiveness in other gestures or other kinds of close-ups that someone like a Bresson might have given us: Bresson’s often blank-faced characters always so powerfully find emotional depth and expression in the mise-en-scène. Not so with Ahmed.
In many ways, of course, this blankness in Ahmed suits his character — he is an unformed adolescent boy, doggedly and obtusely devoted to a single-minded cause, swayed, maybe understandably in his youth, by the passion of an admired adult. But the effect of the blankness, even with an almost claustrophobic attention to Ahmed — the camera itself dogging his steps to the exclusion of almost everyone else — is alienating. It is very difficult to generate either interest in or sympathy for Ahmed, and I found myself becoming frustrated with the Dardennes’s camerawork (which I usually like so much): something that should result in intimacy felt only like a contrived effort at intimacy.
Since we do not have any indication either as to how Ahmed became so devoted to the particular cause he’s found, no journey up until that point, he remains further a mystery, and given what we know about him, we are left with a few problematic guesses about motivation. We know his father is absent — his single mother, we see, in some of the more moving moments of the film, clearly at a loss, on her own, in terms of how to deal with her son. Her grief and pleading at the mystery of his violence are in some sense a relief to us as viewers–she expresses our own bafflement, if not our grief. So maybe the father’s absence and the mother’s inability to deal with Ahmed suggest Ahmed is trying to find a father figure.The film does not really support this motivation in any deep sense though. The context clues leave us with so very little in that direction.
The more troubling idea in a viewer’s inevitable search for motivation comes with the presence of the Muslim faith in the film. Because of the film’s intense gaze on just one individual, on Ahmed — again, a very typical approach for a Dardenne film — we get very little sense of the religion of Islam except in an extremist form and little sense of the larger Muslim community. Ahmed’s teacher does represent, perhaps, a mainstream form of the faith, but we only glimpse her, and the Muslim community, especially the male community, who is, in this film, mostly represented by Ahmed’s dangerous imam and Ahmed himself, is not presented in any coherent shape. The uncomfortable implication is of a faith that is — or can become — very easily radicalized, especially in young men.
I do not think the Dardennes mean to make this suggestion. Given their history, their interest in all their films to humanize even characters who do troubling things, I think they are interested purely in Ahmed as an individual rather than as a representative of any type or of any larger group. They are interested in individuals within systems, and rarely in the systems themselves and how they might function on a broader scale, affecting groups of people. But in their ususual strength as filmmakers — a focus on the individual — is perhaps also the problem.
In the effort of this film, or what I take to be their effort, it is hard not to see the ways in which their own identities and experiences as white men, white men with Catholic roots, blinds them to the realities and lived experiences of those who do not share that identity. A white man has the privileged position of being perceived as an individual; he does not represent a group, he does not represent whiteness, typically, when he commits a crime. There are no damaging stereotypes that will affect a white man, for example, when he becomes entangled in the justice system (particularly a wealthy white man). A Catholic man, too, has the privilege of being connected to a religion that, even with its outrageous abuses, its priests who’ve committed sexual assault, still maintains its general position of respect and power in the world, particularly the Western world. People still want to know what the Pope thinks about something, even when individual priests are criminals. The Pope himself, even still, is not associated, in the broadest stereotypes, with pedophilia. That wouldn’t be fair, most, presumably, would protest.
My sense is that the Dardennes do not seem to really understand, at a visceral, lived-in level, that a character like Ahmed does not enjoy fairness; he would not enjoy the same right to individuality that they do. He should absolutely have it, but we do not live in a world where that is the case. In our own country, the word “terrorist” is still associated with Islam, in spite of the fact that far-right, white extremist terrorism is statistically the form of terrorism that is most threatening to this country. And Hollywood, not Belgium, may be the worst purveyor of toxic stereotypes about Arabic or Middle Eastern men, but the stereotypes, surely, exist internationally, particularly in the West, where someone like Ahmed, might be immediately perceived, on sight, as a threat, whereas a teenaged white boy will not be.
The Dardennes’s film, then, whether they intended it or not, does, I believe, play into a dehumanizing stereotype. It connects Islam with terrorism because the film simply cannot exist in a vacuum. Ahmed, in fairness and in justice, would be one individual who happened to meet one individual dangerous imam. But we do not live in a world where Islamaphobia does not exist. We do live in it, and the film, whether it intends it or not, says something about it.
If the Dardennes were not white, if they themselves were Muslims, perhaps the story would play differently. But I suspect they would not tell this story at all — or tell it in this way, with such an opaque, ultimately mysterious character who, in order to be stopped, the film by the end suggests, needs something desperately extreme.
And this is not to say the Dardennes and other filmmakers should not continue to tell their stories about individuals; we need film, perhaps more than ever, to tell all the individual realities that can be imagined. But for these filmmakers to try to represent this individual (and, in my view, fail to present his individual complexity) without seeming to understand how he is connected to a larger group (and to the stereotypes imposed upon it), then perhaps it would have been better not to try — or better to give the story to someone else.
I would like to be able to enjoy the small pleasures of this film, those certain little moments which present the awkwardness of youth so poignantly. I would like to be able to excuse it because I know the directors seem to be earnest humanists. But I cannot. It is a film that, I believe, looks through a narrow lens of whiteness and does not see that good intentions might have, only at best, troubling implications. In a world where white supremacy is showing its ugly face with increasingly brazen boldness and violence, I fear we cannot afford the risk of these well-intentioned white stories.