‘Young Ahmed’ review: award-winning jihadist story blends social realism with artful melodrama

Newcomer Idir Ben Addi plays a Muslim teenager who is seduced by radical ideas

Winners of two Palme d’Or awards at CannesRosetta (1999) and The Child (2005) – Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are known for their incisive, socially minded output. In Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed), the brothers return once again to their favourite subject, underprivileged adolescent protagonists on the margins of society or in trouble with the law.

The film won the Dardennes Cannes’ ‘Best Director’ gong last year and, despite its familiar tone, feels like something of a departure for the duo who have bravely chosen to broach a rather thorny subject. Young Ahmed follows a Muslim teenager (played by Idir Ben Addi) living in Belgium who becomes increasingly seduced by radical ideas.

On the surface, 13-year-old Ahmed is like any other Belgian teenager. With his thick, curly black hair, Harry Potter-style glasses and a rather serious demeanour, Ahmed looks more studious than troublesome. The young boy has been struggling to come to terms with his Muslim identity after encountering a new radical imam (Othmane Moumen) at his local Mosque.

Eventually, Ahmed becomes consumed by his faith. Lecturing his own mother and sister about what he sees as un-Islamic behaviours, he soon finds himself in a battle of wills with his mother and at loggerheads with his teacher Mrs Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) who hopes to teach him a more inclusive interpretation of Islam. With his head filled with ideas of Jihad and dying for the cause, Ahmed hatches a plan to carry out a heinous crime against Inès.

Young Ahmed
‘Young Ahmed’ is available online from August 7. Credit: Madman Films

The Dardennes have once again presented a well-researched and engaging story, which is only slightly let down by its lack of direction in the film’s later stages. Some of the acting is too stunted to be completely believable, but like any new Dardennes production, this is something to be expected from the duo who have been known to work with non-actors for the purpose of authenticity.

We are also reacquainted with the brothers’ signature use of hand-held cameras, as well as their frequent observation of everyday tasks – represented here by the portrayal of Ahmed’s daily prayers and chores – and sparse dialogue. These elements can make their films feel more like narrative documentaries than fiction. However, for all its subtlety and timeliness, Young Ahmed can’t resist the odd moment of melodrama, which sometimes feels out of place in an otherwise undiluted piece of social realism. Young Ahmed might not be vintage Dardennes, but it is still one of their most daring works to date.

Details

  • Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
  • Starring: Idir Ben Addi, Olivier Bonnaud, Myriem Akheddiou
  • Release date: August 7 (Digital)
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