Carthage Film Festival brings radicalisation to big screen

Some of this year’s entries from Algeria and Tunisia shared a common concern: Religious extremism.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Thorny issue. A scene from Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s “Fatwa.”  (Les Films Du Fleuve)
Thorny issue. A scene from Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s “Fatwa.” (Les Films Du Fleuve)

TUNIS - A young man leaving for jihad in Syria with his parents reeling from their son’s sudden decision is the story of Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia’s “My Dear Son.”

Ben Attia’s sobering second feature depicts a Tunisian named Sami struggling to cope with chronic migraine headaches and the pressures of education by resorting to a life of extremism in Syria. At the behest of the boy’s mother, the father sets out to retrieve his son by any means.

The film debuted November 7 at the Carthage Film Festival at Cinema Le Colisee, a few blocks from where, nine days earlier, a Tunisian woman detonated a homemade bomb, killing herself and injuring 20 people. The bomber, a 30-year-old unemployed university graduate, hadn’t displayed signs of radicalisation, something she had in common with the protagonist in “My Dear Son.”

The 29th Carthage Film Festival (JCC) opened November 4 under heightened security measures.

“Just like Tunisia, the JCC, as a place of freedom and resistance, will not bend to the bearers of obscurantist projects,” said festival Director-General Nejib Ayed. While it attempts to augment cultural life in Tunis, the festival also strives to use art to shed light on the concerns of the region and its people.

Some of this year’s entries from Algeria and Tunisia shared a common concern. Like “My Dear Son,” Tunisian director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s “Fatwa” and Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s “Divine Wind” tackle religious extremism with a focus on jihadi groups’ attempts to recruit young people.

While “Fatwa” and “My Dear Son” focus on the effects of jihadism on the families of recruits, “Divine Wind” examines the minds of two people sent on a suicide mission. Allouache said he wanted to present something that all Arab countries struggle with. The Algerian director, who chose to film in black and white, said his characters are universal and depict the motivations of young people who are brainwashed into joining terrorist groups.

“Fatwa” explores the complexity of extremists’ manipulation of previously positive notions such as fatwa. “When I was a child and being a part of a religious family, ‘fatwa’ had a positive connotation,” Ben Mahmoud noted.

Ben Mahmoud’s film investigates the aftermath of the death of a divorced couple’s son after rumours surfaced that he had joined an Islamist jihadist group. Shocked by the rumours, his parents retrace the steps of their son’s life to determine the reasons a young liberal arts student would become a violent jihadist.

Ben Mahmoud said the danger of religious extremism is far more threatening to moderate Muslims than to secularists. The idea becomes evident as the fate of the protagonist unravels in the film’s final seconds.

Ben Mahmoud pinpointed religious tensions that are new to Tunisian society. He said that before the “Arab spring” both Islamist and leftist extremisms were absent.

“My Dear Son” depicts the emotional journey of grieving parents seeking answers to their son’s descent into extremism. Ben Attia draws a poignant portrait of members of a lost generation struggling with the anxiety of trying to find a reason for living. His film is based on testimonies of families whose sons left for Syria.

“This is a film about ideologies, about young people who are on a quest for meaning and purpose,” Ben Attia said.