The pandemic of extremism is an issue all too familiar to a 21st century audience. Although droves of impressionable, misguided young people leave everything behind to join groups such as Daesh, the focus is usually on what happens to them after making this catastrophic decision; only rarely are their previous lives explored, and it is even rarer to look at the people they leave behind.
In his film Weldi ("Dear Son"), Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia sheds a light on the very first casualties of terrorism, those left to pick up the pieces of shattered family lives. They have to deal with the trauma and heartache of having someone close to them fall prey to radicalisation.
Mohamed Dhrif, who plays the film's main protagonist Riadh, has explained that this is "a curse" we live with today. "But the film itself does not deal with extremism; the most important theme it deals with is the deeper issue of family ties."
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The main breadwinner of a financially strained middle-class Tunisian family, Riadh struggles to connect with his troubled teenage son, Sami, who has been experiencing migraines and mood swings due to the stress of taking his final Baccalaureate exams. Riadh's naive optimism for the future is impeded by the blunt realism with which his wife Nazli navigates their family life, and the relationships between husband and wife as well as father and son hang limply in the balance from the offset. One fateful night, Sami steals away with all his belongings and leaves only a note on the computer explaining to his parents that he has left to join a group in Syria. What follows is a slow-burning emotional rollercoaster headed by the quiet persistence of Riadh in getting back his son, even if it means losing his wife and himself in the process.
Weldi's undoubtedly nonpareil feature is Dhrif's performance; haunting and sombre, his honest portrayal of a struggling everyman intensifies the film's emotional tether to the audience, creating a character with whom we not only sympathise, but also relate to. Dhrif himself believes that Riadh was the "most important character" he has ever played, and said that Weldi is a film "close to [his] heart."
The unending love that Riadh manages to muster for his moody, borderline disrespectful teenage son is baffling to the point of being unforgivable. In perhaps one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Riadh drops Sami at a party and insists that he has a friend nearby who he'll spend the evening with before coming back to pick his son up. He then drives a little further down the street and parks his car, waiting for Sami to finish. He keeps up the lie that he had a great night with his friend whilst waiting. A petty lie, from pure intentions, sums up the pair's relationship. Riadh's constant facilitation for his son, often at the expense of his own happiness and comfort, creates a vicious cycle in which Sami ultimately feels both entitled and choked. Dhrif's character embodies the universal stereotype of the loving father, but is there such a thing as too much love?
The secondary — to the point of coincidental — "Sami runs away" storyline is almost a throwaway in a film that analyses the deep intricacies of family and relationships in the most nuanced way possible. Even when dealing with such a heavy topic, Ben Attia chooses to focus on the everyday familial struggles and relationships as opposed to the issue of radicalisation itself, to show audiences how small issues within a family unit can ultimately have dire consequences.
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"We often believe we're thinking about other people's happiness, but really we're thinking about our own," suggested Dhrif when asked about some of the struggles faced by his on-screen family. Perhaps both the care and pressure Riadh places on Sami is not for the boy's benefit, but a manifestation of Riadh's own unfilled hopes and dreams for a life he can no longer live. The film itself lingers perhaps a little too long on the domestic situation, giving the audience a fly-on-the-wall panorama of the family's crumbling state and Riadh's pitiful attempts at connecting with his distant son, an insight that is arguably necessary in order to sharpen the climax which… well, you should watch for yourself.
Subtle in its approach but heavy in its impact, Weldi is a film necessary for the audiences of today. It puts familial life in the Arab world under an emotional microscope in the most artful way possible, and takes one on a journey of life, love and loss in under 90 minutes.