Berlinale 2024: Who Do I Belong To (2024) (Mé el Aïn)

Who Do I Belong To, an unsettlingly topical first feature by Meryam Joobeur, looks at identity in a post-ISIS world and sets out to challenge perceptions and prejudices.

Between two worlds

by Alexa Dalby

Who Do I Belong To

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Aïcha (Salha Nasraoui) and her husband Brahim (Mohamed Grayaâ) live an almost biblical life as farmers herding goats in a village in the north of Tunisia near the sea. The cinematography by Vincent Gonneville is fabulous, as through it we see the routines of their everyday life. Joobeur is a heavy user of midshots, giving her film something like the look of an Iranian moral-dilemma film.

Aïcha is motivated by a mother’s love for her three sons. She is devastated to discover that the two eldest – Mehdi (Malek Mechergui) and Amin (Chaker Mechergui) disappeared to Syria to join ISIS. She keeps up the pretence that they have gone to Italy to find work. She believes Amin, who was studying to be a doctor, was brainwashed by Mehdi. The youngest (much) son Adam (Rayene Mechergui) is befriended by the scrupulously fair and friendly local police officer Bilal (Adam Bessa), who is a childhood friend of Mehdi.

Mehdi returns home to his parents, traumatised, without Amin and with a mysterious pregnant north-Syrian wife Reem (Dea Liane), who never speaks, and is enveloped in a voluminous purple niqab that she never takes off, so that only her blue eyes can be seen. She is unnerving to the family. Adam is frightened of her: strange things start to happen in the village since her arrival, which Aïcha covers up out of love for her prodigal son and her obligation to accept his new wife. Mehdi’s return has to be kept secret from the police (Bilal) for fear of prosecution for being an ISIS fighter.

The film looks at the roots of extremism, its ripple effects on a family, friends and a community: and how the love of a father and a mother is expressed in that context. The film Who Do I Belong To takes off into magical realism and uses flashbacks as it eventually unpeels Reem and Mehdi’s painful back story. Reem is probably a Yazidi but that is not necessarily the point: she is a traumatised victim who wants to share her story and get justice, which turns her into a mythological figure of vengeance, but she is so traumatised by the horrendous incidents she has lived through that she cannot speak.

Like Mati Diop’s Atlantics, the film looks at what happens to those left behind when young men leave, though for very different reasons in each film. The films share supernatural elements but Who Do I Belong To includes many other threads (gender roles, identity, extremism, death, family trauma), which makes it seem unfocused with a scattergun approach – though still searing, atmospheric (thanks to an overly insistent, portentous score by Peter Venne) and effective.

The story of the film arose out of the director’s Oscar-nominated short Brotherhood and a chance meeting in Tunisia with the three Merchengui brothers – red-headed and freckled – whose appearance challenges perceptions of what a Tunisian looks like. Joobeur’s aim is to humanise specific real-life experience so that it is not ‘othered’ and thus universalise it.

Press conference starts around 20 minutes into the video after a clip from the film.

Who Do I Belong To had its World Premiere in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival on 22 February 2024. International sales are by Luxbox and international representation by The PR Factory.>

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