Young Ahmed (2019), directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. French/Arabic. 85 minutes. BBC4, Sunday (17/10), 23:40.

Well, with terrible inevitability, the decision to cut and run from Afghanistan and the replacement of boots on the ground with megaphone rhetoric seems to have led to a supposed terrorist attack on British soil. All of which makes this Film of the Week apposite.

This simple, brief story seems to have divided critics. A schoolboy in Belgium offends his Arabic teacher as he leaves his ‘homework school’ one afternoon. ‘A true Muslim won’t shake a woman’s hand,’ says Ahmed. It emerges he has fallen under the influence of a charismatic fundamentalist imam. None of the adults in his life can get through to him, including his white working-class mother, whose husband is not around.

Convinced his teacher is an apostate, because she wants to teach Arabic using secular songs rather than the Qur’an (he also publicly denounces her for having a Jewish boyfriend), he makes a feeble attempt to kill her and is taken into youth custody. Put to work in a little farm, he meets the farmer’s pretty and somewhat forward daughter, which complicates matters.

The reviews were sharply divided, along political and racial lines: most people admired the film as a character study and a brave piece of social realism about a difficult issue. But it was savaged by Joseph Fahim in Middle East Eye when the brothers won the direction prize at Cannes in 2019: he said it was ‘the most offensive, most insensitive and certainly the most Western’ of the many films about Arabs and Islam shown that year, a reflection of the Middle-Eastern money flowing into the coffers of the film industry. His thoughts are worth reading, although using a compass direction as a term of abuse seems lazy to me.

Meanwhile, Kevin Maher in The Times called it ‘a sophomoric and eventually silly drama’ whose young lead, Idir Ben Addi, gives a ‘blank and essentially inscrutable performance’. I’d like to link to it, but the review is behind a paywall. Maybe Kevin needs to work on his ‘scruting’. Or maybe he just doesn’t know any teenagers. Then there was Sight and Sound, whose Caspar Salmon fretted over whether the Dardennes, as ‘sixty something white men’, had a right to tell the story, fearing ‘certain embarrassment’.

It’s actually a thoughtful, well-crafted film, that explores the complexities of tensions between and within cultures: there’s a particularly fascinating scene in which the Muslim parents clash over whether their children should be learning the kind of modern Arabic that will help them to get jobs, or the kind of classical Arabic that will help them preserve the purity of the faith.

Young Idir Ben Addi, of whom I know nothing, is very strong in the title role. Of course he’s blank. That’s the role Ahmed has chosen to play. What these critics seem not to have noticed is that this is a primarily a film about the psychology of adolescence rather than religion or ideology. That’s a subject for artists: the other stuff is for pamphleteers.

Ahmed is as unreachable as the little girl in the brilliant System Crasher, from the same year, which Cheltenham Film Society will be showing next month. But Ahmed is Muslim, male, almost an adult, and determinedly ideological, which makes him much less appealing to the English-speaking audience for foreign-language cinema. The Dardennes, though, seem happy to bite the hand that feeds them, at least in this modest 90-minute effort. 

But who cares what I think? I don’t have a dog in this fight. I am interested in all religions, ideologies and belief-systems but adhere to none.

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