The Dardenne brothers tread sensitive ground in Young Ahmed, as a teenage religious fanatic takes the teachings of his religious leader a step further than expected.
The latter part of the 2010s saw a number of terrorist attacks on the small European country of Belgium. They no doubt left an impact on Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who have chosen to use the theme of teen radicalisation as the basis for their most recent film Young Ahmed. The film garnered the brothers the Best Director award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
The Dardennes follow Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a 13-year-old radicalised Muslim boy, as he perpetrates an act of violence and then undergoes a period of attempted rehabilitation, before reaching a somewhat melodramatic conclusion. The process of radicalisation has taken place when we join Ahmed; his views on interacting with women, on alcohol, on Christians and Jews are ingrained, and it’s clear that his Imam has already been a strong influence on his thoughts.
Young Ahmed certainly has its intrigues and noteworthy points. The handheld camera swoops and swirls around Ahmed, not only putting him and the viewer at the centre of every interaction but emphasising the maelstrom of thoughts racing through the adolescent’s mind. The brain of a teenager is confused at the best of times, but for one who is so consumed by burgeoning religious fervour, it’s constant. And by sticking with Ahmed so closely, it’s easier perhaps to begin to understand his lack of proper connection to those around him, as even those who are closest to him are on the periphery of his experience, held at arm’s length (literally in some cases) by the boy at the centre.
There are also a number of occasions when the sense of dread becomes overwhelming; when the viewer just feels that something terrible is about to happen. The fact that none of the supporting characters observes the preparatory actions which Ahmed carries out in private only emphasises the feeling – the audience knows what’s about to transpire but is powerless to intervene.
It’s difficult to pin down whether Ahmed’s impassivity is exactly what the filmmakers asked for, in order to make the actions more shocking when they occur, or whether there was an inability on the part of the young actor to express himself more accurately on-screen. It’s true that it’s difficult to connect with him, and that’s understandable given the narrative, but it also, unfortunately, makes it feel that the redemption hinted at in the final scenes is neither real or earned. His stilted juvenile relationship with Louise (Victoria Bluck) shows little chemistry, and I did fear for her safety – what was her father thinking allowing her to spend time alone with him?
It’s not the first time that the Dardennes have demonstrated their keenness on a tale of morality or redemption, but sometimes you just wonder whether this is a story that old white men should be telling at all.