Young Ahmed review: A powerful, gripping drama
Mike Williams | On 07, Aug 2020
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Olivier Bonnaud, Myriem Akheddiou, Victoria Bluck
Watch Young Ahmed online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
The Dardenne brothers’ latest is set in Belgium and delves into the life of Ahmed (played effectively by Idir Ben Addi). He is, on the surface, a normal man of Muslim faith growing up in a world of multiculturalism and expanding diversity. As a devout Muslim, the timid and often-mute teen is guided through his coming-of-age years by the strict, literal teachings of the Quran implemented by his uncle and those who surround him.
A controversial story that undoubtedly generates plenty of both good and bad faith debate, this exploration of radicalisation from writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre is a particularly intimate story of the daily mundanity of a stringent, religion-centric life with the stark uncomfortable reality of insular extremism.
Beginning with Ahmed’s school life, things quickly progress to a simmering plot to murder his teacher because of her religious beliefs and due to what he interprets in the Quaran. While we often experience silence, the imagery and insinuation over what we think is about to happen creates a bold enough intensity and often chilling atmosphere, once we understand where the boy’s mind is at and how he uses his cunningness to disarm those trying to rehabilitate him.
With the camera almost permanently fixed on this curly-haired, spectacle-wearing boy, we’re allowed to observe his private angst, physical nuances, and – most significantly – his moments of deep thought. This is all possible thanks to the strength of Ben Addi’s performance. Rather than bombard us with a mainstream cliche from either side, the Dardennes simply offer a narrative that shifts the power dynamics between those trying to help Ahmed and Ahmed himself.
We constantly try to second-guess what the film’s title character will do next and what he’s thinking – often enticing us to draw a worst case scenario, as virtually silent tracking shots evoke a typical response audiences may associate with religious extremism.
The film is short yet includes an enormous amount of social commentary and haunting subtext. The provocative but articulate storyline strips a lot of supporting characters back to focus on this one person, this one radicalised teen. It shows the struggles of one person, in one family, and those relating to one victim, all of whom are affected by religious indoctrination.
The feature is raw enough to feel almost documentary-like in capturing movement and naturalistic conversation. This offers even greater impact when the more alarming scenes come along, adding a worrying impetus to what is about to unfold. But ultimately, it’s a tale about proactive redemption – not necessarily on behalf of our lead but for viewers, who now have a different view into the subtleties and secrecy of radicalisation, as opposed to what they might read in the news.
By the end, you’ll be invited to draw your own conclusion over how well Ahmed has or has not been rehabilitated into society. The journey is thought-provoking and at times intense but, ultimately, is worth dedicating your time to. With its intimate portrayal of religious cultism and some of its more severe consequences, Young Ahmed is a powerful portrayal of a radicalised teen that will grip and enlighten.
Young Ahmed was one of several films streaming as part of the 2020 Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2020, when we originally published this review. See the full line-up here.