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BERLINALE 2024 Competition

Meryam Joobeur • Director of Who Do I Belong To

“I like the idea of very real emotions set in a world that feels a bit surreal”

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- BERLINALE 2024: The debuting director delves into her film, in which something very real – and very tragic – co-exists with mysticism

Meryam Joobeur • Director of Who Do I Belong To
(© Dario Caruso/Cineuropa)

Aïcha (Salha Nasraoui), who lives in Tunisia with her husband and sons, can see the future in her dreams. But when her two eldest boys leave to fight for what they are told to believe in, the family struggles. Months later, Mehdi returns – without his brother, but with a new, perpetually silent wife. Their arrival, or maybe her otherworldly stare, triggers some odd events in the village. Meryam Joobeur breaks down her Berlinale competition entry Who Do I Belong To [+see also:
film review
interview: Meryam Joobeur
film profile
]
for us.

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Cineuropa: Something very real – and very tragic – co-exists with mysticism in the film. The thing is, the unknown is already part of this universe, basically from the very beginning.
Meryam Joobeur: I’ve always loved magical realism. I think it’s because my grandmother used to tell me Tunisian folktales when I was young. I like the idea of very real emotions set in a world that feels a bit surreal. In the village where we shot, this is part of their culture as well: they actually believe in magic. I was inspired by that place and their beliefs, and by the idea that the dead can come back. Then you have Aïcha’s dreams. In the last couple of years, dreams have been very significant to my own life as a way to connect with my subconscious.

At first, someone tries to predict the future from coffee grounds. It doesn’t look good. Later, this sense of threat grows, but it’s still impossible to pinpoint it.
You know which film I thought about the most when making this? Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jonathan Glazer
film profile
]
. It resonated with me because that’s the kind of cinema that moves me the most – when it just leaves you wondering. Sometimes, our own inner shadows are the most frightening. I tried to follow that traditional concept of a spiritual journey here – some earth-shattering event happens and brings to light many things that these characters eventually need to face. An awakening comes, but it comes precisely from accepting that shadow.

The shadow you mention is lurking in their house even before this unexpected return. Mehdi’s parents are broken, devoured by their loneliness. You introduce them when it’s already very, very bad. Why was this interesting?
When you are confronted with a challenging experience like that, you either double down on it or there is a massive transformation that follows. They are trying to understand their child’s extreme choice. I would love for it to speak to more experiences than just having two sons join a terrorist organisation. The point is, you have lost them as a parent. The emotional gravity of that situation can be very similar [to another situation], regardless of its origins.

It’s dark, but their little brother represents light. His perspective is very important because things are still simple to him. He knows what his brothers have done – his concern is whether he can still love them. The answer is yes – you can feel love and contempt. Sometimes, we struggle with that, because these two seem way too extreme. But even Mehdi is both a victim and an oppressor.

In theory, family members should always accept you – no matter what. Aïcha tries to do that as well. She says that as long as these boys have a mother, they also have a home.
My personal interpretation is that in the case of this woman, and I have seen it happen to other women around me, her whole identity switched to motherhood after she had these boys. Their father is more preoccupied with having an “honourable” family. Finally, their older son who comes back has built his identity around being a victim of his father’s. He says that if it weren’t for him, he wouldn’t have gone away. They are all stuck in their ways, and then it comes crashing down.

I was interested in showing how we construct our identity. These people don’t know who they are any more. Mehdi’s trauma rewires his mind, but he is still latching onto his victimhood. It’s terrifying when it changes like that – I have been experiencing it myself for the last couple of years. But it can also be so liberating. That’s why the title is Who Do I Belong To – it’s all about this question. Who am I? Do I belong to myself or to society’s perception of me? This whole film is a rumination on that.

Still, you show an isolated community where these questions seem a bit out of place. They can’t openly discuss these dilemmas.
I was talking to my friend the other day, and she has been trying to talk to her father for years now. And she hasn’t been able to do that. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard to communicate,” she said to me. It’s so easy for us to share our opinions on social media, but when it comes to talking to your own dad about the resentment you’ve felt for years? Forget it!

It’s so challenging, trying to face that. But if we can’t communicate within our own communities, how can there be any hope for the wider society? There is this “danger of assumption” that comes with it because when we don’t know what another person is thinking, that’s what we do: we assume.

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