Meryam Joobeur, director of the Oscar-nominated short film, ‘Brotherhood’, talks about how a chance encounter in rural Tunisia spawned a powerful collaboration, the renaissance in Tunisian cinema, and why young people find themselves drawn to ISIS.
‘Brotherhood’ (‘Ikhwène’), which has been nominated in the Best Live Action Short at the Academy Awards, centres on a Tunisian family who is left deeply unsettled when their oldest son, Malek, returns with a mysterious new wife. The film explores the themes of faith, extremism, and the struggle to communicate between family members, challenging stereotypes along the way.
zenith: How a big a role did luck play in coming up with the idea for ‘Brotherhood’?
Meryam Joobeur: The story behind ‘Brotherhood’ started in 2016, when I decided to take a road trip in the north of Tunisia with the film’s cinematographer, Vincent Gonneville. I wanted to discover more of the country, as I had never been to the north before. As we were driving, we were really blown away by the landscapes. Then one day on the side of the road, we saw the two older brothers from the film, Malek and Chaker, walking with a large herd of sheep. When I made eye contact with Malek, I was immediately captivated by his face. We asked to take their photo, they said no. So, we drove away. It was a very brief interaction, but we both had this feeling that there was something really special about them, about the landscape.
Why did this encounter with Malek and Chaker stay with you?
I thought it was really interesting that a higher than average percentage of men from Sejnane in the northern governorate of Bizerte had gone to Syria. For a year and a half, I kept thinking back to these boys and the place. I ended up writing the script for ‘Brotherhood’. Probably in summer 2017, I asked Vincent, if we should go looking for the boys. And Vincent said: Let’s do this! We actually forgot where we found them. We didn’t know their names. We just thought to look around Sejnane. So we went there and just started asking random strangers, if they knew any red-haired brothers with sheep.
Did their distinctive look help you to find them?
If they had brown hair, it would have been completely impossible to find them. But the only thing we had going for our search was the fact that they were very distinct. After seven hours of searching, we were about to give up and fly back to Montreal the next day. We took a back road and Vincent recognised a pile of rocks where we found the boys the first time. We asked a shepherd who was standing nearby, and he pointed out their house. As we were driving there, I started thinking that this was a pretty crazy situation, very bizarre. The first person who came out of the house was Rayene, the youngest brother, which was incredible because I hadn’t seen him before. The funny thing is that I had written a younger brother into my script because I thought it would add a very interesting perspective, an innocence, a pure love. This was too good to be true. Then Malek and Chaker came out. At first, they didn’t remember us at all, but slowly they recalled. I pitched them the idea and I told them to think about it for six months. Thankfully, half a year later, when I came back, we had put together a small budget and they and their parents agreed. So we made the film together.
‘Their upbringing has instilled within them this connection to nature’
What was it like working with these three brothers as first-time actors?
They had never done any acting before, but everyone has an instinct inside them. When I saw the brothers, there was something in me that told me that they could do it. And I listened to it. I didn’t really focus on doing too many acting workshops, I just build a lot of trust. I would go every weekend before the shoot to spend time with them, but that was just to give them the confidence so that their talents shone through. They have such a beautiful bond, too. That was great because it was inherent in their relationship. I didn’t have to create brotherly love. It existed already. In the end, a lot of directing of the boys was just very simple things like: look up, look down, take your time.
Did your script evolve through your interactions with the three brothers?
In my directing, I like to remain open to surprises. But interestingly, in terms of character profiles, they all fit what I had envisioned. Malek, the eldest, is definitely the most sensitive. He has his heart on his sleeve. Whereas Chaker is much more reserved in real life, and that’s how he is in the film. Rayene is just a very dynamic, loving kid. That’s how I envisioned the characters and that’s how their personalities were.
Why has this film, with its theme of a young Tunisian man returning home from Syria, hit a nerve?
I think it’s because the perspective of coming home, the setting of a shepherd’s family and also having the opportunity to understand the seeds within the family allow that to happen. The father-and-son relationship is as old as human history. The contention between the two and their struggle to communicate. The father places a lot of expectation and pressure on the son, whereas the son just wants to break free. In this context, the media generally gives you one perspective about the Arab and Muslim world. And there is a thirst from non-Muslims or non-Arabs to understand this world more deeply. That’s why ‘Brotherhood’ touched a core, because everyone could choose a character and feel aligned with this character. You can switch Malek joining ISIS with Malek going into hard drugs or Malek joining a Christian cult and abandoning his family for years. What happens within the family is not so different. That’s why people could project their own lives onto this family’s story.
What does the spectacular landscape of northern Tunisia add to the film?
When you’re there, the landscape is so pure. It’s very isolated. Even though I had that two-minute interaction with Malek and Chaker, you can tell that their upbringing has instilled within them this connection to nature, this geographical isolation, and then you put them in Syria. I felt that this was so heart-breaking because you’re throwing them into basically hell when their background definitely has not prepared them at all. Growing up in a city in the USA or in Tunis you have a much wider idea of what the outside world looks like. Your understanding of other cultures is greater than if you come from a very isolated region. This landscape was the background for this story.
How did shooting ‘Brotherhood’ make you reflect on your own relationship with Tunisia?
‘Brotherhood’ is the second film I’ve shot in Tunisia. The first one, ‘Gods, Weeds and Revolutions’, was a documentary about my family. It was very insular to my personal experience in Tunisia, but what I got from ‘Brotherhood’ is being able to understand the wider reality of Tunisians and the country’s diversity. My Arabic also improved a lot because I had to direct in Arabic. Before I sounded a bit like a toddler mixed with an old lady. Now it's getting closer to my age. I got a lot from feeling more confident in the language, and also from collaborating with Tunisian artists, professional actors like Mohammed Houcine Grayaa and Salha Nasroui. That was one of the most enriching experiences with actors I’ve had because they were really part of the collaboration of translating the dialogue and pushing the scenes further. It was beautiful to feel that I was embraced by the cinema community of Tunisia. I’ve built a very strong relationship and bond with the cast, especially the brothers. They’ve become my little brothers. Last time I was in Tunisia, they visited my village.
What is the significance of the two female characters in ‘Brotherhood’?
The parents are on opposite scales of the spectrum. The father, Mohammed, is very hard line: My son did this wrong, and so he should be punished. Whereas the mother, Salha, comes from the perspective of love because she hasn’t seen her son for so long. Her love blinds her to ask harder questions. I wanted to have that dynamic of the mother’s love versus the father's more disciplined approach. Women from the region are stereotyped as very meek and submissive. I wanted to create a female character from the region that isn’t afraid to speak to her husband and is going to fight for her children. And then with Reem’s character, the Syrian wife, she’s a character our perspective of whom changes as the film progresses. When she arrives, we assume that she’s definitely a very extremist Muslim. She wears a niqab, she won’t even look the men in the eyes. She’s very quiet, very reserved. Then over time, we start to realise that she is very much a victim of war. Maybe the reason she’s wearing the niqab is because she’s hiding, she’s traumatised and she feels safe underneath. I want to peel the layers of the onion where the perceptions of the audience are constantly shifting as more information is revealed.
The film does not seek to attribute any clear blame for Malek’s decision to go to Syria.
I wanted to highlight the complexity of the radical decisions we make. One of the things that’s really shocking about ISIS is how many young men from around the world went to join. From different cultures, not just from the Arab Muslim world, but many Americans and French went too. There’s an inherent weakness or insecurity in the new generation of men that would allow them to be drawn to a group like that. Especially in the beginning, when they put out crazy propaganda to give the image of toxic masculinity. And this was attractive.
‘It is symbolic that an Arabic-language film set in the Muslim world has been nominated’
Why was this propaganda attractive to people like Malek?
They said: Come join us, you will have a gun, you will have a car, you’ll have as many women as you want, you’ll be a badass. This attracted so many men. I heard from an officer at the Ministry of Interior in Tunisia stories of young men going to Syria and realising that it wasn’t at all what they had expected and either coming back or getting killed for attempting to abandon ISIS. Malek may not have been initially attracted to go, but, because of his relationship with his father, he is drawn to the ultra-masculine image of ISIS. But he soon realises it was not what he had expected. He couldn’t connect the dots because of where he’s from. He couldn’t see that they wanted him to slaughter people.
Who failed Malek?
We have to ask how much we as a society are responsible. There are many layers to it. Why do Arab youth and Muslim youth in France feel so disenfranchised? Probably because the society somehow makes them feel that they’re not part of it and they’re more susceptible to a guy coming over and promising to them to be part of their brotherhood. I tried to give a perspective to show that it’s more complex. We need to keep talking about it.
What is the significance of this Academy Awards nomination for Tunisia?
I’m so proud and so humbled by the fact that it’s a first nomination for a Tunisian film. It’s also really meaningful because after the revolution, there has been a cinematic renaissance in Tunisia which has produced a lot of interesting filmmakers and films. It is symbolic that an Arabic-language film set in the Muslim world has been nominated. People recognise the human aspect of this story and are attracted to that.
What can we expect from the feature-length version of ‘Brotherhood’?
I’m still in the writing process, which I don’t like to talk too much about. Writing is one of the most beautiful phases in the filmmaking process. You have the freedom to go anywhere and there’s nobody questioning you. I can tell you that the idea to develop a feature-length film actually came about when we were shooting ‘Brotherhood’. So it wasn’t a reaction to the success of the short film, but a natural progression. As I was collaborating with everyone, I just felt that this story could be expanded. There was more I could explore and show and I just loved working with the group of actors and I wanted to deepen that bond as well. I’m really surprised about everything that’s happened. Sometimes you’re pushing years to get a project made and then sometimes a project just falls into place.
Meryam Joobeur is a Tunisian filmmaker based in Montreal, and co-founder of the Tunisian-based production company Instinct Blue. Her previous short films include ‘Gods, Weeds and Revolutions’ (2013) and ‘Born in the Maelstrom’ (2017). Her latest film ‘Brotherhood’ (2018) premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the prize for Best Canadian Short Film.