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Spectacular Belgian drama exposes the ugly face and the devastating consequences of religious radicalisation in schools - live from Official Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Amal (Lubna Azabal) is a passionate high school teacher in French-speaking suburban Brussels. She is a practising Muslim, and so are the majority of her students. They attend religion lessons with Nabil (Fabrizio Rongione), a man whom she suspects of instilling her students with a hateful interpretation of the Quran and Sharia principles. Belgian law determines that nobody (not even the school principal) is allowed to attend or interfere with his classes because that would be an infringement of freedom of expression. This means that Nabil has carte blanche to brainwash the young people at his convenience.

Monia is one the most introspective students. She is a closeted lesbian, and for that reason a constant victim of hate. Her classmates repeatedly harass and threaten her, both physically and digitally. The online intimidation technique includes shocking rape and murder threats. The escalation eventually slips into violence. The young fundamentalists say that Monia has provoked them because of her permissive behaviour, and that their reaction is entirely founded. A perverse and yet familiar argument commonly used by rapists, killers and aggressors of all sorts. Jalila (played to perfection by Cuban actress Ethelle Gonzalez Lardued) is the angriest, most dangerous and vocal of the extremists: a person devoid of humanity, entirely defined by twisted religious doctrine.

The caring Amal (Arabic for “hope”) decides to interfere. She believes that she can open up the hearts and the minds of her students introducing them to Abu Nuwas, a famous Muslim writer and poet from the 8th century who penned extensive and overtly homoerotic literature. Her initiative is met with outrage, with some parents demanding that their children are not exposed to the “demonic” writings. A non-Muslim student questions why he had to be dragged into a conflict in which he does not wish to get involved. The school refuses to abide by the censorship request, reminding the religious fundamentalists that freedom of expression must prevail. In private, however, school principal, begs Amal to give up teaching Nuwas for the sake of her own mental health. But for how long can she grapple with the wrath of her students?

Belgian-Moroccan Azabal delivers a heart-ripping performance as a strong and determined woman slowly collapsing under the unbearable weight of bigotry. Her eyes are trembling and burning with love and desperation in equal measures, her desire to help others entirely palpable. This role is not entirely dissimilar to the equally enrapturing and selfless Mina of The Blue Caftan (Maryam Touzani, 2022). This is.a very talented woman firmly establishing herself as one of the finest Arabic and French language actresses of the present day.

Jawad Rhalib’s third feature film is a movie that shock and revolt you. The dialogues are credible and absorbing, in a neat script without any loose ends. The entire cast (not just Azabal and Lardued) likewise. The absence of a music score combined the occasional use of complete silence serves to emphasise the tension, while also forcing viewers to concentrate on the multithreaded and profound dialogues, particularly Amal’s lengthy interactions with her students in class. A movie that is both enlightening and educational, without slipping into didacticism. To top it all up, Amal has a punch-in-the-face denouement that will stay with you for a very long time.

This is the very first time I have seen a francophone movie about Islamic radicalisation amongst young people in Europe that does not lapse into facile Islamophobic cliches. The Belgian filmmaking duo Dardenne Brothers failed tremendously four years ago with The Young Ahmed, as did French veteran director Andre Techine with Farewell to the Night, in the same year. Both films, perhaps unwittingly, paint a very negative picture of Islam. Amal is aided by the fact that Belgian-Moroccan filmmaker Jawad Rhalib is a practising Muslim. A beam of hope in the dark times of political scapegoating and film stereotyping of Muslims in Europe.

Amal just premiered in the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 19-11-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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