Meryam Joobeur earned an Oscar nomination for her 2018 short film, Brotherhood, about a Tunisian family grappling with the unexpected return of their son, Malek (Malek Mechergui). Malek, who has been gone for over a year, returns with Reem, his pregnant wife, who hides herself under her niqab. As tensions play out between father, Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ) and son, things come to a head. (It would spoil this excellent short to reveal more.)

Joobeur’s debut feature, Who Do I Belong To, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, expands Brotherhood by taking this same kernel of the story in a different direction. Again, the adult son of the family – here renamed Mehdi (Malek Mechergui) – returns home, but without his brother, Amine (Chaker Mechergui), who left with him. Mehdi brings his pregnant wife Reem (Dea Liane), with him, but her character is older than she was in the short. 

While his mother, Aicha (Salha Nasraoui), is pleased to see Mehdi, she is troubled by his absence and the loss of her son, Amine. His father, Brahim (Grayaâ), is unhappy about Mehdi’s return and wants him to leave. Brahim’s role is less prominent in the feature, but his presence is still palpable. There is tension among the family, but Joobeur focuses on Aicha and her relationship with her son, whom she hopes to protect along with Reem and her baby.


An additional character, not in the short, is Bilal (Adam Bessa), a local policeman who is friendly with Mehdi’s young brother Adam (Rayene Mechergui). Given that Mehdi may have left to become involved with ISIS, his return must be kept secret. Bilal agrees not to disclose that Mehdi has returned. 

Who Do I Belong To captures the characters’ conflicting emotions as Mehdi’s reappearance stirs memories of trauma – for Aicha, who mourns her dead son, and for Reem, who has experienced abuse in the past, as well as for Mehdi, who struggles with both. Joobeur uses her camera to scrutinise her actors’ hands and faces in tight closeups that reveal much of their emotions. She also uses the rough but beautiful landscape to comment on her characters. 

In an interview following the Berlin Film Festival, Joobeur spoke with Senses of Cinema about her intimate and intense new film. 

– G.M.K.

What prompted you to tell this story as both a short and a feature? Who Do I Belong To feels like a retelling of the story, rather than an expansion of the short.

It all came instinctively. I had the idea for the feature when I was shooting the short actually. In the short, another actress played the character Reem, the Syrian wife, and when I saw her in her niqab in the landscape something clicked: that is a powerful image, and what if this had happened instead? It was born from this idea – how would this configuration of people adapt to this other scenario? It is a similar context treated in a very different way. I was hoping that the short and the feature would complement each other. There are some parallels, of course, family and community, but one seems to be about the inability to see light, and the other about the inability to see darkness. 

Did the Oscar nomination help you make the feature, or was this project already in the works? How did the nomination impact your career?

I think the success of the short allowed us to secure funding quicker in some ways. We did mostly public funding. It was a coproduction. Because of the nomination, the institutions trusted the team and me. I wasn’t in the [funder’s] decision-making process, so I can’t say for sure, but my impression is it probably made an impact.

Who do I belong to

You shift the focus slightly between the two films – focusing on Brahim in the short, and Aicha in the feature. What accounts for this shift in point of view? I really liked that, the lightness and darkness you mentioned, rather than retelling the same story.

It is interesting because when I was shooting the short, I was inspired by the actress, Salha Nasraoui, who played the mother in both films. I am a big believer that – from my experience and I am comfortable saying it now – I have more of a spiritual relationship to filmmaking. I was exploring the female perspective probably because there was a moment in my own life where I was trying to make sense of what it means to be a woman for my own sake. I instinctively made that decision and I saw a lot of parallels in the film and my own life. 

The film has some haunting moments, especially at the end of chapter 1. You create a very specific feel for the Tunisian landscape where much of the film unfolds. Can you talk about the textures and visuals, which are used to reflect the emotions of the characters. The images are sparse, but very impactful in communicating this idea of man vs. nature. Nature is a character in the film. The place informs the characters.

I love that you describe the nature as a character in the film. That was something my cinematographer, Vincent Gonneville, and I were always discussing. We didn’t want to shoot nature as a pickup shot, a filler. We wanted to take the time to photograph nature in a way that it could be a metaphor for the inner lives of the characters and their dilemmas. The nature in this village is very raw and there is something very special about the energy there. The air is different. We had very inspiring landscapes, so it was a question of finding what in particular resonates with the story we want to tell. The sea became a natural metaphor. Water was both a violent and purifying force. The mother drinks it from the source. We feel the power of the ocean. It was naturally something we were drawn to. 

I was also struck by the intimacy of the camerawork, and how you focused on the characters in closeup and shot their hands or their faces in ways that really scrutinised them. Can you talk about your visual approach to the storytelling? 

I finished the film literally three weeks ago, so I’ve not had time to digest or process. It is nice to hear the intention we hoped and dreamed of conveying are coming across. Our compass was how do we get into their inner lives? How do we create an immersive emotional experience, where you are with the characters and living the emotions of the moment with them. That is what informed our choices, even with the [actors’] hands. The best example is in the police station when the officer is telling Brahim that if his sons come back, they will go straight to prison. I could convey his state of mind just with his hands. He doesn’t have to speak. You can see that he is nervous. A gesture of a hand can convey more than words. How is the character feeling right now, and how can we creatively show that? We instinctively went towards faces gestures, playing with focus, and sound and breath, very delicate stuff.

The film suggests Mehdi and Amine left because of their father. Whereas some folks, the film indicates, smuggled themselves into Europe, Mehdi and Amine were possibly brainwashed and joined ISIS. What observations do you have about this kind of proselytisation? 

What propels someone – and this is my personal feelings in this moment, my perceptions – to take the risk of taking a boat across to Europe and face possible death, or join ISIS, the roots could be similar. It is an extreme act and can come from a place of desperation. From my research, people go for different reasons. I think Mehdi goes because of his father. I wanted to bring in this idea of what is personal responsibility in this? Mehdi takes on the identity of a victim of his father and believes it so wholeheartedly, he blames his father for his decision. I thought it would be interesting for Bilal to confront him about it. I leave things a bit open. I do think Mehdi and Amine are very naïve – look where they come from! Their understanding of the world and how it works, their youth, they don’t understand the ramifications. It was strange to witness how ISIS created this almost action film propaganda. This hypermasculine, almost strangely seductive thing that influenced young men who felt disenfranchised and unseen who think they may become powerful in some way. There is no clear answer why, but as in everything in life, there are a mix of reasons.

Who do I belong to

I liked the ambiguities! On the other hand, Fatma (Mariem Jlassi Akkari), a neighbour, has been having difficulties where her husband is being abusive after their son left for likely the same reasons Mehdi and Amine did. I also thought the knowing vs. uncertainty was very palpable. Is it better to know your son is dead, or have hope he might return? 

It’s a tough scene, but it really has this tension. With everything she has lived, Fatma wants to know the truth so she can mourn. Whereas Aicha, who has the ability to see and know, doesn’t want to. Aicha’s journey starts off not wanting to know or face the truth or see what their sons are capable of or what they did. She tells Brahim, as long as I am home, they can come, and Brahim asks, “Do you realize what they did?” We can’t judge or blame her – she is a mother – but as the film progresses, her journey is really about wanting to know the truth, and facing the truth and finding some kind of peace in that. That scene between her and Fatma is about Aicha not being ready to know.

Adam, in particular, is fascinating as well. Can you talk about his character? He is an innocent, but very perceptive. He knows what is going on despite being shuttered from the truth.

In today’s world, Adam’s character moves me because children are so perceptive. They feel a lot. The adults don’t realise that kids are sponges. If we don’t get our shit together, it’s going to affect the children. They are our hope. Adam brings the light in the film. He is the hope. He is the first to sense there is something off, that there is a darkness. He is feeling it, but the adults around him deny it. That is a tragedy – that our instincts are so powerful as children, but we learn to deny it to survive. It’s unpleasant and difficult for adults to fully face what they need to face to validate it. Adam’s journey is related to Aicha’s in that she is overprotective to him. We see the transformation in Aicha when she allows him to face the truth and the realty of life and death. She is very supportive. Adam is complex. He knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t tell his mum he knows because he wants to protect her from his pain which I think is perceptive as well. 

In a poignant moment, Mehdi claims, “It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” referring to time with ISIS. Can you talk about his character, his disillusionment, and how he exits ISIS, tries to save Reem, and jeopardises his family? He has real guilt. 

For me, that was the thing about Mehdi; his victimisation of himself became his Achille’s heel. He went to ISIS and faced a horrible situation where he was forced to kill. I wanted to explore how his trauma – he couldn’t face what he did in my interpretation – changed his reality to avoid what he did. His guilt haunts him through Reem. He pays for what he did, and his family pays for what he did. We can see the capacity for good and evil exist in everyone. That message was important. I notice that phases in human history where certain communities become the villains and Muslim/Arab community post 9/11 we were seen as having the compacity to be terrorists and instilling fear and violence. We have that capacity within all of us. If we want to stop wars and genocide, we need to acknowledge that about ourselves. This is a universal truth. The more we acknowledge that, the more power we have over this shadow. Mehdi represents the capacity, not the psychopath who can do the killing, but this shadow side that can emerge under the right conditions. 

There are also ideas of sacrifice in Who Do I Belong To. And it is especially powerful when Brahim says in voiceover, “My family is everything I am. Who do I belong to?” Can you talk about this theme?

I’m sure Aicha feels it deep down as well, but I thought it would be powerful for Brahim to say these lines. He is stoic as a character but the moment we understand what he is feeling inside is this. He says these lines because he is dealing with a universal dilemma. He has an inner life even though he guards it a lot. He is trying his best to figure out how to keep it all together.

There are secrets and lies told throughout the film – often to protect someone. Can you talk about this idea of a double life these characters have and your intention in creating that? 

That’s exactly it. I was reflecting about – and it came from a personal place – that we think we will lose what we have if we’re honest. The people we fear the most are the ones we love the most. With Aicha lying, I wanted to show that’s her shadow side. It is her unwillingness to face the shadow of the people she loves and confront it. Her overprotectiveness and her willingness to lie and maybe threaten her own integrity under the guise of protecting the people she loves. Instead of realising that there is a value to the truth as painful as it can be. 

Who do I belong to

Bilal is an interesting character who was added to the feature. What can you say about his narrative? He is close as a brother to Adam and is a kind of son to Aicha. His perspective as a policeman who must keep a secret, is interesting. He has a burden to protect this family he loves.

I love Bilal because along with Adam, he is the steady force, the light. Bilal represents the light in all of us and capacity of that, and that family does not necessarily have to be blood. He is there for the parents and Adam and it’s not a blood relation, but it provides this idea that family is what we define as family. This is the family he loves and yes, he’s a police officer, and there is an inner conflict about that, but he does confront Mehdi. Morally, he makes a tough decision of following through. 

You also made some adjustments with Reem’s character – she is older, and she has the baby in the feature. Aicha says, “We have to accept her,” though Brahim does not want to. Mehdi says, “She saved me.” We also get a vivid sense of her backstory. What can you say about developing her storyline?

The Reem reveal! [Laughs] Creating Reem was an extremely creative experience. I have to thank the actress, Dea Liane, because she breathed a lot of life and complexity. It wasn’t a simple character to bring to life. Reem is full of contradictions; she is mystery throughout. I liked the idea that metaphorically – and I am open to how others interpret the film; all I can share is how as a director I made certain choices – but one way she can be perceived is as a metaphor for Mehdi’s trauma and guilt. I like the ideas that everyone sees her, but they don’t really want to see her. She is the shame, and when her story is truly revealed, you understand her origins, and it is a heartbreaking twist in a way. Adam is scared of her, so she becomes a frightening character. She is taking the men away. She can seem dangerous. But then you see her origins. 

What can you say about including the flashbacks that provide some context to the various stories, like Mehdi and Amine’s and Reem’s? We know what happens and how it informs a character, but the film also includes some ambiguities that prompt the viewer to make the connections. Can you talk about your approach to the narrative and the structure of the film?

The flashbacks were the way the editor Maxime Mathis and I were thinking about trauma as an onion and how do you peel away the layers? I wanted the viewer to experience the layers of trauma unfolding was the same way Mehdi was experiencing them. You are in his denial and slowly things start emerging and building on top of each another. It is only when he is ready to open up, that we enter with him. I like this idea that we don’t know anything that the characters don’t know themselves yet. You are living it with them and not in on some secret the character is not aware of. 

What kind of response do you anticipate the film getting? It is a political film. 

I think it’s a political film, but I think it leaves a lot of room for interpretation and reflection. What I observed is that it is the type of film you have to go into surrendered. It’s an emotional journey, almost like entering another reality. If you go into it with logic, it might not speak to you. It might be a challenging experience. But people going in emotionally available to the film said it was a visceral experience, and a very physical experience, and it left them with a lot to digest and think about and question and reflect on. As an artist, that is the best thing I can ever hope for.

About The Author

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, San Francisco Bay Times, and MovieJawn. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2. He teaches and curates short films, and is the chair of Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. His primary cinematic interests are short films, queer cinema, and films from Latin American. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and GALECA.

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