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Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud • Director of Fatwa

"What these young people have inherited is no match for the propaganda they face"


- Cinergie met with the Tunisian director and screenwriter Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud to talk about his latest film Fatwa, co-produced by the Dardenne brothers

Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud • Director of Fatwa

Recently awarded the Tanit d'Or at the Carthage Film Festival, Fatwa [+see also:
film review
interview: Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud
film profile
is the latest film by the Tunisian director and screenwriter Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud. Known for delivering films which are deeply rooted in his homeland, Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud uses this Dardenne brothers co-production to tackle the topic of religious radicalisation in Tunisia.

Cinergie: How would you describe the conflict we see in Fatwa? Is it a class conflict or the conflict certain youngsters feel when faced with their heritage?
Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud: What these youngsters have inherited is no match for the propaganda they face. According to the research I carried out in Tunisia, as well as in Belgium, the parents I questioned are in turmoil over this matter. They haven’t found a solution, regardless of the demographic they belong to, or the defences they thought they’d equipped their children with, in order to help them recognise or prevent this type of abuse.

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There is definitely panic among young people today, wherever they might find themselves, which leaves them exposed and makes them vulnerable; which weakens them and makes them easy prey for extremists of all kinds, in this case the Salafist extremism which plays on an easily recognisable weakness: that of feeling uprooted, and the identity loss that young people of Maghreb descent have been suffering for some decades now. Some believe this to be a consequence of colonialism, of globalisation. It’s quite easy to make a young person feel guilty about their loss of identity, and the fact that they’ve let themselves be led astray from their original culture, their religion and their heritage. It’s quite easy for preachers to get to young people by exploiting this weakness and that’s how they manage to bring youngsters such as these under their control; young people who weren’t, on the face of it, their original target.

Why wasn’t this film shot in Belgium in the end?
We couldn’t find a French partner. The film was financed here by the French community, we were able to secure a co-production agreement in Luxembourg, but we would have needed a third partner. The French didn’t come on board, for reasons we’ve never been able to establish. Was it the story? Did they feel nervous about the subject-matter? Some people found it too direct and were worried it might upset the Muslim community.

After the revolution in Tunisia, I noticed that the building blocks for the story had emerged on the Tunisian stage; that is, there was secularism on one side and, on the other, strands of religious extremism whose representatives were either in exile, in prison or underground during the dictatorship, and who were now starting to work in plain sight.

In addition to this, with the Revolution came freedom of speech, so I was no longer worried about tackling this type of subject or moving the story to Tunisia. So I adapted it and the only difference from the Belgian version is that it doesn’t take place within the setting of a Muslim scout group.

It’s understandable that young people from a Muslim background might experience an identity crisis here in Belgium, a country where it’s not easy to be a Muslim. But it’s hard to imagine this crisis taking the same form in Tunisia.
This inner turmoil is a matter of degree. Here, they’re easier to prey on because young people feel rejected, they chase after a romanticised identity which is that of their grandparents, and of a mythologised country which they themselves have never known. They feel resentment towards the West, towards a society where they can’t find a place for themselves. It’s almost caricatural. But this phenomenon also exists in Aram-Muslim countries, even in well-off families who aren’t so exposed on a social or economic level. Dual cultural identities -which aren’t always fully acknowledged, and which are often experienced as a conflict and not a gift - are common to modern-day generations.

(Read the full interview in French here.)

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(Translated from French)

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