Young Ahmed is a 2019 drama, directed by the gifted Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose intensely humane realist dramas have already twice earned them the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Yet in Young Ahmed, the brothers dare to take a controversial turn with a portrait of a radicalized Muslim teen. 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi in a breakout role) spends his days studying radical Islam with Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen). Much to the dismay of his mother Louise (Claire Bodson), the teenager has already committed himself to jihad and has sworn himself to hatch a plot to murder his teacher. This reckless act lands him in juvenile detention. As the movie progresses, Ahmed finds himself struggling with his confused ideology, as various characters attempt to sway his beliefs.
From the film’s outset, it becomes clear that this biracial teenager has developed a dangerous connection with a militant imam (Othmane Moumen), who plants poisonous ideas in the boy’s head. At school, Ahmed refuses to shake the hand of his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) because she’s a woman, while at home, he berates his white mom (Claire Bodson), in Arabic, for drinking alcohol.
The Dardenne brothers show what those shaken by terrorism fear most: the idea that regular people can be brainwashed and body-snatched into agents of jihad. First-time actor Ben Addi, who plays Ahmed, looks like the last person who would walk into school with a weapon, a scenario Americans know all too well. He is an adolescent caught in a kind of tug-of-war between rival role models where the imam has already gotten to him, instructing him to lie about what they discuss at the mosque.
Actual terrorist attacks that took place in France and Belgium were a real catalyst for the Dardennes. Unnerved by the geographic proximity of those events, they asked themselves how they could bring a story about these terrible events to the big screen. The directors took the reality of being a fanatic very seriously, trying to portray how fanatics don’t listen to the outside world building a wall between themselves and reality. Their only goal is for others to become like them, no matter the cost.
The cinematography intentionally feels extremely claustrophobic, staying close on Ahmed, so that in a sense, he is locked into the frame, the way he's locked himself into fanaticism, into a fanatic bubble, not communicating.
For the film, the Dardennes won the award for Best Directors in Cannes.