Innocence to the Extreme: An Interview with Cannes Best Director Winners Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

April 13, 2020   •   By Eileen G’Sell

ON ONE LEVEL, Young Ahmed, the latest feature from Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, reads as a disquieting bildungsroman: an adolescent boy, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), rejects his family for the dangerous fundamentalism and open misogyny of a local imam (Othmane Moumen) to whom he proves himself through violent actions. Accusing his single mother (Claire Bodson) of drunkenness and his teacher, Madame Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), of dating a Jew, our pudgy, bespectacled protagonist rapidly (if often awkwardly) adopts more extreme measures sure to elicit competing reactions. Is he pathetic or sympathetic? Scary or sad? The answer reflects as much about us as it does the actual character. 

But on another level, the vérité film is less about Ahmed than about how a vast diversity of Muslim citizens sustain community on the margins. With competing interpretations of how best to learn Arabic (through popular media or the Qur’an?), along with an array of races and native tongues, contemporary Islam in Belgium is hardly a monolith. Some women wear headscarves and modest dress; others don blouses unbuttoned at the top. Some fathers want their children learning modern Arabic, while others see it as craven assimilation. What is clear is that Ahmed’s fanaticism does not represent the whole — a testament to the Dardennes’ enduring commitment to representing the complexity, and dignity, of the underprivileged, be it of class, race, or creed.

Young Ahmed has, unsurprisingly, received a fair amount of criticism for diffusing the protagonist’s story through a white, Christian lens and for occluding the larger circumstances that lead to his demise. When framed as a tale of redemption, the movie inarguably falters. But as a portrait of a troubled young man and the forces that surround him, the Dardennes’ drama offers a poignant perspective.

The following, translated from French, is an excerpt of a conversation with the directors in late February, prior to the film’s US release. On May 22, KinoNow will be streaming Young Ahmed


EILEEN G’SELL: Your film exposes the dangers of Ahmed’s radicalization, but also avoids generalizing about Muslim people. How did you go about balancing a critique of extremism with compassion for your characters?

LUC DARDENNE: Well, yes, it’s true. We liked young Ahmed a lot. And we tried to understand his suffering, even if he feels that everything is going well. We tried to understand how to delve into the depths of his unhappiness and how we could save him. We had hoped to do it through another character in the film — the girl on the farm. But we couldn’t, so we did it through his fall at the end of the film.

Can you say more about the role of the girl, Louise? She is a really interesting character.

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: We also think that she is an interesting character. But it seemed to us that if he came out of his fanaticism through this young Belgian girl, for instance, then it would make fanaticism superficial. It couldn't be enough to meet a seductive girl to come out of it. We knew, through our studying and through our research, that in fact what was much more likely was that the opposite happens: the person who’s a fanatic would bring the non-fanatical person toward fanaticism, and even sometimes their family. So that seemed too Romanesque, and it would have been that we would have taken it too lightly and almost avoided the depth of how far fanaticism can go.

It could also potentially risk making it seem like, “Teenage love just solves everything.”

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Exactly! [Laughs.] That’s impossible.

As an adolescent, Ahmed seems so awkward and innocent-looking — which contributes to him seeming unthreatening, but also makes his propensity for violence more unnerving. How did you go about casting his character?

LUC DARDENNE: The reason we chose Idir Ben Addi was because he did have that sort of childish air about him — a little bit of clumsiness walking while his body was on its way to become the body of an adult. His hands, notably, when he’s praying, are still puffy like a child. And we wanted young Ahmed to have that sort of double, dual character aspect where he can kill — which he tries — but his clumsy and childish body makes it seem like he isn’t made for it.

So as authors, we hoped — and we hoped that the spectators would also pick up on this — that his body shows that maybe he has a chance of escaping fanaticism, maybe the imam wasn’t able to completely inhabit his body. When we met Idir, and we met him in the first 10 or 15 [young men] that showed up for the casting, we saw that this childishness was still present. That’s really what attracted him to us, and why we picked him. And, of course, you know, he was an extremely good actor.

Part of what’s intriguing about Ben Addi’s acting style is that his face doesn’t reveal a lot of emotion. It’s more through his physical movements. This also made the possibility of violence more suspenseful: if you can’t see the emotions on his face, it’s harder to tell what his motives might be. Was that something you instructed him to do, or that he did anyway?

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: To answer your question, I’d say both. It was what he brought and also the choice that we made. We saw very soon that he had that potential. We always filmed the initial castings, and then we looked at them — and what we saw, we then developed. So, yes, the less his face reveals, the more the spectator doesn’t know what to expect, doesn’t know what he’s going to do. And that seems interesting.

His glasses also add something, and Idir actually wears them. These glasses create a frontier between him and others. We always filmed a little above where he was looking. He rarely looks up. When he does look up, he’s with his imam, and there he’s listening intently, so there we have him looking up. In French, we have the phrase, “lost behind his glasses.”

That just makes it more poignant that Louise takes his glasses off when they are on the farm and she wants to kiss him. She then wears his glasses. In that moment, he seems so much more exposed.

LUC DARDENNE: For us, that was also a very important moment. It was a wider shot, where you see the trees that are moving, and the grass. There’s a sense of more vulnerability — of life more than Ahmed’s preoccupation with death, [alongside] his martyr cousin who was projecting him toward killing. At that moment, he stopped running for a second. And that was important to us. 

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: At that moment, we wanted to really underscore the fragility of life. The camera no longer follows him. It’s a fixed frame. We’re looking at him, but not following him. And that underscores that feeling of the fragility of life. The wind moving the hair of the farm girl also underscores that fragility.

So much of the film was shot inside confining spaces, like the correctional rehabilitation center, his school, the mosque, and his apartment. So the farm scenes really do feel more liberating.

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: It also underscores an element of hope.

One of the most congested scenes in the film — which is also one of my favorite scenes — is when Madame Inès, his teacher, is meeting with the community of Muslims who are so different in both appearance and opinion. How did you go about creating this group of very different Muslim individuals? Are they actually from the community in Belgium or were they cast?

LUC DARDENNE: Most of the people in that scene were actors, and all the ones that spoke were. And some of them had actually appeared in our preceding films. Others were recruited by Kevin, Luc’s son. And some we knew in our lives, or were friends, and we asked them if it was okay for them to come and participate. The shoot lasted two days, and everything was done in sequence. It was important for us to have a few children there, specifically a mother with a baby. That turned out to be very important, because the mother had to attend to the baby, and it wasn't predictable. That brought life into the scene because of how she had to handle the baby.

In the final scene, Ahmed says “forgive me” twice to his teacher, which seems deliberately ambiguous. It could seem as though he is saying “forgive me” for his original attempt to kill her, that he has had a change of heart. It could also suggest that he was going to attack her again. Was that deliberate in terms of the audience not knowing? Or did you intend for the final image to suggest that he is no longer a fanatic?

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: For us, he has changed. He actually no longer has a weapon and has only one hand functioning. When he calls to her, his hand is empty, and his other arm is immobile. But I understand what you’re saying, and you’re not the only one. Some audience members expressed the same confusion. But I think that’s because they were taken up with whatever they were going through with the film.

When he asks for forgiveness, he’s asking for forgiveness like a child asks for forgiveness — like, “Let me come back to my old life, let me come back to where I was.”

LUC DARDENNE: We feel at the end that he has remained on his mother’s side. In fact, the mother wins against the imam, and we feel that life is able to resurge.

JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: I mean, he’s going back to where he was before. We tried doing the end with no words, with silence, and it just didn’t work. We needed him to speak up for his life to be able to reemerge.


Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018).