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CANNES 2019 Competition

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne • Directors of Young Ahmed

"The child is more radical than the radicals"


- CANNES 2019: We met with the Dardenne brothers on the occasion of their 8th visit to the Cannes competition with yet another film, this time in the form of Young Ahmed, their 11th feature

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne • Directors of Young Ahmed
(© Christine Plénus)

This is now the 8th time (in a row!) that the Dardenne brothers have been selected to participate in the Cannes Film Festival; a duo whose works have, over the past 20 years, brought home no fewer than 2 Palme d’or awards, two Best Performance awards, one Best Screenplay award and one Grand Prix. Suffice to say, their new opus Young Ahmed [+see also:
film review
interview: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
film profile
is eagerly awaited; a film which seems to follow along the same lines as The Kid with a Bike [+see also:
film review
interview: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
film profile
or even Rosetta. Forget, however, the actresses who previously graced their opuses as heroines - Marion Cotillard, Adèle Haenel, not to mention Cécile de France. Here, the brothers are reverting to one of the defining features of their films: the revelation of a young unknown talent who carries the film from one end all the way to the other.

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Cineuropa: Why did you take an interest in the fate of a radicalised young boy?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne:
The attacks which took place in France and Belgium were a real catalyst for us. The geographic proximity unnerved us. We asked ourselves how we could say something about these terrible events through our films. 

Who is Ahmed?
Luc Dardenne:
We decided to make Ahmed a very young boy, a child even, because that allowed us to show how such a malleable young brain and young body could put itself at the service of a hate-based ideal spread through the preaching of an imam. The child believes in this ideal of purity. He believes it with all his being and becomes more radical than the radicals. He wants to act, now.

But we also wanted to show that sometimes the body can escape the control of the mind. That life can win out over death. We tried to write with an older character in mind, but it really bothered us. There was too much moralising; it felt sinister. We didn’t want to spend months of our lives in his company!

J-PD: Our hope was to find a small story with universal resonance. Ahmed is obsessed with the memory the imam conveniently reawakens of his cousin who died “in combat”. This cult of the dead is a huge burden on him; a deadly burden.

Ahmed has a unique relationship with language - between verbal violence and imperviousness to any alternative discourse…
J-PD: We took the reality of being a fanatic very seriously. Fanatics don’t listen to the outside world; they build a wall between themselves and the world. Their only goal is for others to become like them, no matter the cost. The story of the film is to try to help this boy get back to the “impurity” which he wants to save himself from, without, however, lapsing back into naivety. And it’s only by way of his body that, at a certain point, he falls back down to earth. Words can no longer reach him.

And yet there’s no shortage of kindness shown towards Ahmed…
We had to follow through with each and every one of the characters who try to pull him out of his fanaticism. Sometimes it feels like things are wavering. When we were writing, we realised that contrary to what we did in our other films, we couldn’t create a character who could help Ahmed to become another person. He had to change by himself. 

This imperviousness adds yet another layer of dramatic tension…
 This dramatic tension was constantly at the back of our minds and we crossed our fingers that the viewer would bear with us! We had to maintain a balance between the impression that Ahmed is too closed off to deviate from his lethal plans and the hope that he wouldn’t go through with it. Will he change, or won’t he? It also has to be said that when you film a child, there are things that escape us and things that escape him. He’s not a professional actor who’s controlling his body and his movements. He does his thing and the camera is there like some sort of vampire. We were careful to leave him this freedom so that we weren’t in control of everything, with regard to the boy or ourselves.

Religion: is it a difficult subject to broach in film?
LD: We approached it through the body, which is constrained by religion in this instance. Religion trains the body of this kid to not touch others and to not let them near him; to constantly protect himself from the world, from otherness; from anything that might contaminate him. 

You’ve said that Cannes is the place where the issues between Netflix and the film world could be ironed out. Why?
LD: In cultural life, there are privileged moments when discussions can take place, which is the case with the Cannes Film Festival. We need to put pressure on Europe, where people know that we have to dialogue with these platforms but not let them dictate the law. And if Netflix produces real cinematic works like Roma, then that’s great. But they have to do the rounds in movie theatres! Cannes provides a space to bring these contentions out of the legal context to focus more on discussions and human relationships.

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(Translated from French)

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