Avoiding imagery

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne on Young Ahmed

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jean-Pierre Dardenne on Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed): “We're always very concerned with avoiding imagery …”
Jean-Pierre Dardenne on Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed): “We're always very concerned with avoiding imagery …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

With Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed), starring Idir Ben Addi as Ahmed, featuring Myriem Akheddiou, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Othmane Moumen, Olivier Bonnaud, and Cyra Lassman, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne enter a new realm of their oeuvre.

And yet their latest film, for which they won the top director prize at Cannes, is very much in line with what they do best. They illuminate seemingly impossible situations that are deeply grounded in social realities. Body language, quotidian objects (production design by Igor Gabriel - The Unknown Girl; Two Days, One Night; The Kid With A Bike; Lorna's Silence; The Child; The Son; Rosetta; The Promise; Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988; Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini), and a hesitant glance speak volumes.

Luc Dardenne on Idir Ben Addi as Ahmed: “We define the character not by his psychology, but by his accessories.”
Luc Dardenne on Idir Ben Addi as Ahmed: “We define the character not by his psychology, but by his accessories.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second half of my conversation at Ian Schrager's Hudson Hotel with the master filmmakers, I started out by comparing Cécile de France’s access to the kid with a bike and the obstacles faced in getting to Ahmed. Marion Cotillard's walk turned her into a reluctant Western hero in Two Days, One Night. Here, Ahmed, an adolescent boy, living in a small Belgian town, suddenly grows distant from his surroundings. His body is changing and out of control and so are his thoughts.

Anne-Katrin Titze: In previous films, you had, for instance, Cécile de France [in The Kid With A Bike], be able to help the kid with the bike. There was a way to him [Thomas Doret as Cyril]. In this case here [in Young Ahmed], especially women don't seem to be able to get to the boy. He [Ahmed, played by Idir Ben Addi] has a special focus, telling his mother [Claire Bodson] not to drink alcohol. He wants his mother and his sister [Cyra Lassman] to wear a hijab.

Well, the girl [Louise played by Victoria Bluck] at the farm is another matter. But also the female teacher [Mme Inès played by Myriem Akheddiou]. They're all so nice to him. "They're too nice," he says at one point about the farmers and he doesn't want that. He is desperate to control.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It's religious fanaticism. Power. Women are an obstacle between God and him. Including his mother. That's religious fanaticism.

Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) with Louise (Victoria Bluck)
Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) with Louise (Victoria Bluck)

Luc Dardenne: There's a little scene in the film that was really important to us. It's after he's done his ablutions in the bathroom and he's going to pray, his mother comes to him and she says "never say that to me again and give me a kiss."

And he says “no”. This is his mother. Normally, in regular, non-fanatic Islam, the mother is not sexualised. You can kiss your mother, it's not impure. But Ahmed won't because he's been fanaticised. Even that is forbidden. The mother therefore is between him and God.

AKT: The fact that he is working at a farm has great importance. I read it as another attempt to reach those kids. If not humans, maybe animals can reach him. Maybe working on the farm is getting there. And for Ahmed, it seems to work a little bit. Then the girl Louise enters the picture. You say, it's not working at all. But aren't there hints that he is a little bit melting?

LD: Melting!

AKT: Melting.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne on Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) touching animals: “He melts a little and that's why the farm is there and it's the same in reality.”
Jean-Pierre Dardenne on Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) touching animals: “He melts a little and that's why the farm is there and it's the same in reality.”

JPD: Yes, a little. Right, he melts a little and that's why the farm is there and it's the same in reality. It's what we tried to show in the film. But nothing seems to actually turn him away from his objective, which is to kill the apostate Mme Inès. Yes, he has moments of weakness, but that's it.

LD: Yes, it's at the farm that Ahmed starts to touch things. He starts to touch animals, he touches the device for measuring the temperature of milk. And, if I can say so, life is to touch things. To be touched. To not be untouchable. Like what the Imam says, "to be pure", as he tells Ahmed about this cousin of his, the martyr that he carries in his mind.

So I think with the farm, the viewer goes with Ahmed and sees that life is coming back a little bit. And that's why we chose the farm, because he's going to come in contact with things, with milk, etc.

AKT: That desperate, desperate need for purity is something very adolescent. You don't have to be a fanatic to identify. I am the Virgin Mary, I am Joan of Arc, etc.

LD: Yeah, yeah.

Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) at school with his teacher Mme Inès (Myriem Akheddiou)
Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) at school with his teacher Mme Inès (Myriem Akheddiou)

AKT: I noticed when the men are praying during a scene early on, the sound of the traffic outside is very loud. It's very important, I felt. You hear the sounds of the city. Life is going on elsewhere.

JPD: Yes, and on top of that, one of the principal reasons we chose that particular location is that it was on a road on which we could have a lot of cars go by.

LD: And also the separation between this place of prayer and the outside was very fragile. It was just a window which we made a little bit opaque and on which you can see the shadows of the cars going by.

JPD: It also gives a kind of a wilder, a savage side to this mosque. The sacred is stained with the prosaic. There's something prosaic about this situation of praying by the side of the road. There's something banal about it, a little bit banal like what our friend Ahmed does. What he does is like a domestic jihad. It gives a rough aspect to this mosque business.

And we're always very concerned with avoiding imagery, you know, making pretty images or imagery. It seemed to us that the prayer, the mosque, these were moments that could lead to imagery. And our fanaticism was to avoid making imagery.

Luc Dardenne on Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi): “The dialogue doesn't express his mental states, but the objects do. And at the same time, they hide them, because there's a lot to interpret there.”
Luc Dardenne on Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi): “The dialogue doesn't express his mental states, but the objects do. And at the same time, they hide them, because there's a lot to interpret there.”

AKT: There is some of that in the objects, too. He shaves with a pink razor early on. And then there is the toothbrush. A toothbrush is taken away and you have a theme running there. It's such an every-day object.

LD: It's not really the principle of banality that guided us with the objects at first. We find the objects based on what we can imagine in the situation. For instance the razor is his mother's. He would like to have a beard; he doesn't have a beard yet, but he would like to be, you know, a bearded fanatic.

The toothbrush is a very important accessory because it gives Ahmed a continuity. A continuity of killing. At first we see it. He doesn't take it. Then he takes it. He puts it in his sock. He hides it. We follow this. It's a little bit like the kitchen knife which we don't see as much. We define the character not by his psychology, but by his accessories. The dialogue doesn't express his mental states, but the objects do. And at the same time, they hide them, because there's a lot to interpret there.

AKT: That's what fairy tales do. Characters don't speak their emotions, the objects do.

LD: Exactly!

AKT: We had a conversation about fairy tales a few years back in the context of another film [Two Days, One Night].

Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) with his mother (Claire Bodson)
Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) with his mother (Claire Bodson)

LD: At the same time these are objects - like the kitchen knife it's small, it's a toothbrush - it reminds us a little bit of the boy's childhood.

AKT: This comes through everywhere. When he says to the girl "You'll keep me out of heaven." He's a little boy. He's a child.

LD: And he calls for his mother.

Read what Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne had to say on choosing Idir Ben Addi for Ahmed and his journey in the film.

Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed) opens in the US on February 21.

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