“Wolves show no mercy.” These are Mohamed Mechergui’s first words in the Oscar-nominated short film Brotherhood.
It serves as both a lesson for his middle son Chaker on the violence of a predator born in the wild, and a deeper comment on the fractures felt in Tunisia after thousands travelled to Syria to fight – on the wrong side – with the Islamic State group [IS].
Brotherhood is one of the most powerful films of the year so it comes as no surprise that it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film – a rare feat firstly because it is predominantly a Tunisian production and secondly because its director, Meryam Joobeur, is a woman.
The short film has already collected 60 awards in 48 countries, including the 2018 Carthage Film Days’ Tanit d’Or and the Best Canadian Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Joobeur, who was born in Tunisia and grew up in America, is leading the charge for more female representation when it comes to directors in the Academy Awards, and her presence couldn’t come at a better time: All nominees for the coveted Best Director section are men – despite numerous campaigns to the contrary.
Set across a backdrop of rolling, emerald hills in rural Northern Tunisia, Brotherhood takes a simple shepherding family’s wound – the loss of their eldest son Malek to IS in Syria – and picks at the scab until it bleeds when he returns a year later with a niqab-wearing wife.
It is estimated that nearly 3,000 Tunisians joined IS in Syria (though Human Rights Watch believes the number is closer to 6,500), making it one of the world’s highest rates per capita.
After the fall of the extremist group, 900 Tunisians returned on their own, but thousands of women and children have been left in camps across Libya and Syria, held without charge.
The film tells the story of Malek, the eldest of three brothers, who after a year in Syria showed up in the home his father built to the delight of his younger brothers and the suspicions of his father.
Accompanying him is a pregnant woman he introduces as his wife, Reem. His family later learn she is not a woman but a 14-year-old child and this causes his father to come to a fatal misunderstanding.
There is disdain in his father’s eyes whenever they land on Reem; in the way he calls her niqab a “thing”, to him a visual reminder of an ideology that took his son from him, and the way he sits outside in defiance when Reem, who had plucked up the courage to remove her gloves to help the mother, Salha wash clothes, hides them in between her thighs.
In one scene the family sit on the floor and eat dinner from the same plate in a gesture that should be filled with warmth and camaraderie, but is instead filled with an intimate, shared pain that manifests as cutting anger on the part of Mohamed.
Malek offers to mend a broken fence and his father snaps at him like a whip, his words devoid of redemption: “Leave it broken.”
His son stares at his father knowingly before bringing his chin up in youthful defiance: “I had a duty to help my Muslim brothers and sisters in Syria.”
In words that seem to be plucked from the mouths of all the Tunisian families whose sons joined IS, he demands, “And your Muslim little brother Rayene? Did you forget him?
“Where were you when wild dogs attacked him and almost tore him apart?… What about your Muslim mother? She stopped eating and almost died of grief. Are they not worthy of your goddamn religious doctrine?”
Tension, like a taut rubber band, saturates the 25-minute film in a quietly fierce story that forces Tunisia to confront its reflection in the years following the “Jasmine Revolution”, which began after a man set himself on fire in protest against poor living conditions and poverty.
The revolution was supposed to create a democracy. It was supposed to create economic and social stability. Did it? The answer isn’t simple: in a sad echo of the 2010 act of self-immolation by a lone man that set fire to the country and swept pro-Democracy protests across the Middle East, another man, 25-year-old Abdelwahed Hablani, also set himself on fire late last year to protest against the same poverty.
Eight years after the 2011 uprising in the country, referred to as the “birthplace” of the Arab Spring in both hushed tones of awe and derision, Tunisia remains a mixed bag. It has undergone a somewhat smooth political transition to democracy after the death of veteran leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The country held free parliamentary and presidential elections late last year, but it is far from sectarian peace.
Last week the Tunisian parliament rejected the government of Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli after months of failed negotiations between the parties, including the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha which had nominated him.
But all is not well, and young Tunisians remain frustrated by the country’s continuing economic difficulties.
“Since the revolution we have freedom but still no dignity,” says Sofiene Jbeli, an unemployed technician.
“The revolution’s slogan was ‘work, dignity and freedom’ but the first two were not achieved,” adds sociologist Olfa Lamloum.
For Joobeur, these microcosms of tension may provide a context for why so many young men left for Syria. Rather than being seduced by ideology, she poses the question:
Perhaps such radicalisation was enhanced by frustrations over unemployment, inequality, and political paralysis?
In the dinner scene Malek’s father wonders bitterly why he left, and his response is a damning indictment of Tunisia: “If you had respected me, I would have stayed. But you treated me like your mule,” he said.
It is not until the film reaches the end, when Mohamed’s unbending, cold fury compels him to do something that severs what remains of the bond with his son that the scene cuts to Malek, standing with his little brother as they watch the waves lap up the shore.
Malek tells him: “I regret going to Syria. Promise me you will never go there.
“Ok,” his brother promises.