O Sami, my son, my son

Of the many books, plays and films inspired by the story of the Islamic State movement, "Dear Son" by Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia offers something different. Far from the drama of the battlefield, he focuses on the anguish of the family that the fighter leaves behind. By Schayan Riaz

By Schayan Riaz

Following the world premiere of his debut film "Hedi" at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia told the industry magazine "Variety": "Iʹm already working on my next film. Itʹs another simple story about regular people who are confronted with things that are bigger and stronger than anything these people could ever have imagined."

This next film, titled "Dear Son" has now been released and completely affirms Ben Attiaʹs statement. Just like "Hedi", it initially paints a scene of normal daily life. The director shows us very regular people in very regular situations: parents who both go to work, a son whoʹs preparing for his school-leaving exams. They sit together at the dining table, cracking jokes in a pleasant, loving atmosphere.

But before long, the son isnʹt doing quite so well, heʹs feeling exam pressure for sure, nothing unusual about that. Mum and Dad pay the doctorʹs bills, even though theyʹre struggling to make ends meet. Their only sonʹs welfare is more important to them than anything else. Even their financial difficulties.

Film poster for Mohammed Ben Atiaʹs "Dear Son" (distributed by BAC Films)
The drama of those left behind: rather than indulging the audience with scenes from the Syrian battlefield, Ben Attia anchors his story in domesticity. Without Sami, the parentsʹ apartment feels even emptier and an ineffable, silent chill develops between the two. And although the protagonists are in an unbelievable situation, one of the filmʹs great strengths is that the screenplay favours authenticity over melodrama

No trace of Hollywood

And suddenly heʹs gone. A simple note left in his room by Sami gives his parents Riadh and Nazli some indication of his new, approximate location. Heʹs gone to Syria to join a terror militia – IS isnʹt named in the film, but one can assume this is the organisation in question.

Riadh and Nazli canʹt understand this turn of events and at this point, the viewer most certainly canʹt. The gentle and innocent Sami, who looked as though he would get through his exams and recover from the headaches dogging him for weeks – this Sami has suddenly become a terrorist?

To Ben Attiaʹs credit, "Dear Son" is neither about the fortunes of a misguided young man, nor jihadism per se. The filmmaker focuses much more on Riadh and Nazli and explores how awful surprises such as these impact upon individual family members.

If this were a Hollywood movie, it would probably feature dramatic scenes from the Syrian battlefield, with Sami in his new guise as holy warrior. Ben Attia is not in the least bit interested in this. He locates his story in domesticity; without Sami, the parentsʹ apartment feels even emptier and an ineffable, silent chill develops between the two.

As they begin to blame each other, Ben Attia prevents their dialogue from drifting into the melodramatic realm. This is also one of the filmʹs great strengths: while the protagonists are in an unbelievable situation, the screenplay remains authentic and real.

Reminiscent of "Against the Wall"

All aspects of this film are directed with great sensitivity. This is helped by the presence of Dhrif, a lead actor who achieves much with few words. His doleful eyes do all the work, above all in the third act when he sets off to Turkey to find Sami and bring him back to Tunisia. This sequence is partially reminiscent of Fatih Akinʹs "Against the Wall", when the protagonist heads to Istanbul to find his former lover. Only here, itʹs the father whoʹs playing detective.

With "Dear Son", Ben Attia also offers a commentary on the nature of a flux-nation such as Tunisia, where the Arabellion began in 2010 and where members of the countryʹs middle class such as Riadh and Nazli canʹt offer the younger generation any real perspectives.

That a young man like Sami, who comes from a good family, decides against a future in Tunisia can be partially ascribed to the fact that that Riadh will soon be retiring with no savings to fall back on. Sami doesnʹt want to end up like his father and whether this is his actual motivation or just Riadhʹs suspicion – Ben Attia leaves that question unanswered.

A dream sequence underscores the fatherʹs fears and in any case, itʹs true that most IS fighters come from Tunisia. When he discovers Samiʹs Facebook profile towards the end of the film, all he can do is shake his head at this "idiot". He is left speechless.

Differing approaches

In recent times, terror militia have provided the inspiration for many books, plays and above all movies. For example, in her award-winning novel "Home Fire", the British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie writes about the political aspects; in the documentary film "Children of the Caliphate", Talal Derki observes an Islamist family. And in "Profile", Timur Bekmambetov presents the whole issue as a thriller; a British undercover journalist establishes contact with a jihadist in Syria and wins his trust, with the entire story filmed through screen-capture. "Dear Son" by Mohammed Ben Attia is a sophisticated contribution to this demanding and challenging subject matter that deserves a broad viewership.

Schayan Riaz

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon