A Tunisian mother struggles to cope when her jihadist son returns from Syria

Who Do I Belong To?

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘Who Do I Belong To?’

Dir/scr: Meryam Joobeur. Tunisia/France/Canada. 2024. 118mins

In northern Tunisia, a rural farming family is thrown into turmoil when the two oldest sons leave to join ISIS in Syria — and are upended again when one later returns with a pregnant wife in tow. In adapting her Oscar-nominated 2018 short Brotherhood to feature length, Tunisia-born, Canada-based writer/director Meryam Joobeur puts a magical realist spin on this politically-charged domestic drama, demonstrating an understanding of craft and an eye for striking imagery. Yet the narrative often feels stretched, and the messaging can stray towards the heavy-handed.

Meryam Joobeur shows an impressive mastery of craft and an eye for striking imagery

Premiering in Berlin Competition, Who Do I Belong To is likely to draw attention for its topical subject — since 2011, an estimated 5,000 Tunisian men have joined violent extremist organisations overseas — and its matriarchal point of view.  A two-hour running time and an unrelentingly sombre tone may make it a distribution challenge, although adventurous world cinema audiences should embrace Joobeur’s distinctive female take on traditional masculine themes of war and radicalisation.

Mother of three Aicha (Salha Nasraoui, returning from Brotherhood along with most of the cast) seems content with her humble farming life with husband Brahim (Mohamed Hassine Grayaa), and dotes on her three red-headed, freckle-faced sons Mehdi, Amine and the much younger Adam (played by real-life Tunisian brothers and Brotherhood stars Malek, Chaker and Rayen Mechergui, giving naturalistic performances). When Mehdi and Amine suddenly disappear to join ISIS in Syria, Aicha must contend not only with her grief and shock, but shame at their actions. It doesn’t help that Brahim, a gruff, taciturn man, lays the blame at her door; her mollycoddling, he says, left them vulnerable to brainwashing. 

While Brotherhood focused on this patriarch (there called Mohamed but also played by Grayaa), this feature sees events largely through Aicha’s more nuanced maternal perspective. The first of the film’s three chapters is shot through with pain and confusion, as Aicha attempts to get on with life and shield Adam from the reality of what has happened — and the possibility of him following in their footsteps. That Aicha is gifted with a second-sight, which reveals itself in coffee dregs turning from brown to blood red, and vivid prophetic dreams, does not help her growing feeling of unease. 

Cinematographer Vincent Gonneville captures the rugged beauty of the Tunisian countryside, but much time is spent within the claustrophobic confines of the family home, conversations framed in doorways, the camera tight on Aicha’s worried expression. The only bright moments that pierce this family’s growing darkness are brief scenes of Adam playing, or spending time with family friend (and local police officer) Bilal (Adam Bessa).

When Mehdi returns just as suddenly as he departed, the expectation may be for the film to lighten. Yet, as keen as she is to accept her son and his  niqab-shrouded pregnant bride Reem (Dea Liane), Aicha cannot shake the sense that something is very wrong. From here, the film skirts close to horror in its growing tension around Mehdi and Reem, who only shows her eyes and never speaks. Joeber deploys several genre staples —  a cacophony of panicked animals, a shrouded figure in the darkness — to unsettling effect, helped by Peter Vennes’s ominous score and heightened sound design, which twists environmental noise into the decidedly unnatural. 

While Aicha is careful to keep Mehdi hidden from the community, his return seems to stir up trouble. Animals turn up dead and men start to go missing. Yet, with her entire identity wrapped up in her motherhood, Aicha is unable to turn her back, protecting him and Reem as events escalate and evidence mounts to piece together the truth of the situation. It may prove too languorous a journey for some, particularly when the destination provides no traditional sense of relief. Yet as a film specifically about the direct and insidious impact of war on women, there can be no happy endings. 

Production companies: Instinct Bleu, Tanit Films, Midi La Nuit

International sales: Luxbox festivals@luxboxfilms.com

Producers: Nadim Cheikhrouha, Sarra Ben Hassen, Maria Gracia Turgeon, Annick Blanc, Meryam Joobeur

Cinematography: Vincent Gonneville

Production design: Mohamed Ilyes Dargouth

Editing: Maxime Mathis, Meryam Joobeur

Music: Peter Venne

Main cast: Salha Nasraoui, Mohamed Hassine Grayaa, Malek Mechergui, Adam Bessa, Dea Liane, Rayen Mechergui, Chaker Mechergui