The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made it their principle to tell their stories with the greatest possible simplicity. Concentrated, they stick to the characters they place in minimalist stories that when reading the script you have to believe: Is that enough for a feature film?
Yes, it is enough, because the Dardennes may have a narrative economy, but on the way to the finished film, they load up these simple stories with a lot of rich inner life, which you have to work out as a viewer: Nothing is a facade here, everything can, yes must be interpreted, because the apparent simplicity is full of possibilities to furnish them as a spectator; a mental cinema on the one hand, because you have to think about it and think along with it; an emotional cinema on the other hand, because the Dardenne brothers then always provide some twists and turns that let their mostly socially critical films run in unexpected directions.
Challenge the viewer
This is also the case in their current film, for which the brothers, who have already been awarded two Golden Palms as regular guests in Cannes, received the festival’s directing award in 2019, perhaps also because of the omissions that the viewer should demand and that the two brothers so skillfully distribute about their minimalism.
It is a film about a topic that was one of the most present in the pre-Corona world: A 13-year-old student named Ahmed, a devout Muslim and Belgian citizen, radicalizes himself in front of the eyes of society, his own family, the school, of friends, and goes to a strange holy war. This “Jeune Ahmed” (“Young Ahmed”) deals with the explosive topic of religious fanaticism, wants to give an inside view of how a boy develops through an imam into a misguided hater who wants to murder a teacher from his environment because she teaches Arabic as an everyday language and for her the Koran is not the measure of all things when learning this language.
Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) will plan multiple murder attempts, even from a youth detention center; he cannot put all of them into practice because the circumstances speak against him. But because of the knowledge advantage that the Dardennes give the audience by following Ahmed’s preparations in minute detail, “Jeune Ahmed” turns into an exciting and versatile drama despite its simple dramaturgical means.
However: The supposed inner view from the radicalizing, it did not work out for the Dardennes, because in the end they are pretty at a loss as to why all this is happening. Nobody in Ahmed’s environment, neither his teachers, nor his mother, his sisters, the youth workers, the psychologists who look after him, not even the judges or even the young farmer’s daughter on whose farm he is sent to work – nobody can figure it out to make out why this boy is radicalized so.
Main character slipped away
And the directors themselves admitted in an interview that the pupil’s character had “slipped excessively” away from them. “Not even the imam of the fundamentalist mosque, that magnetic figure for Ahmed, understands the dynamism of his determination to kill,” says Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
With “Jeune Ahmed” the Dardennes give in to their search for truthfulness again. With their handheld camera, they follow the not unsympathetic Ahmed through his ordeal in juvenile detention and also describe his lack of insight when it comes to faith. To kill in the name of the Koran? That is clearly written into it, says Ahmed. He won’t let himself be dissuaded from that at first. Not even from a kiss from the pubescent Louise of the same age whom he met on the farm. Afterwards he feels, who has just felt love for the first time in his life, as an impure Muslim.
It is scenes like this with which the Dardennes portray Ahmed’s radicalism particularly vividly. At the same time, they are also working to ensure that this radicalism cannot be met with naive optimism, as has happened in many places.
But in the end, “Jeune Ahmed” remains, despite its dense dramaturgy and the possibility of room for interpretation, very much in the Western view of the dreaded religious fanaticism. Unfortunately, there is no insight into the young fanatic’s thinking, more into his emotional world. The escalation of this fanaticism, the Dardennes seem convinced, is something we must first learn to read.