Berlinale 2024 review: Who Do I Belong To (Meryam Joobeur)

“An expertly crafted mystery box of repressed emotions and evocative imagery by a director whose voice may not be fully developed yet but is clearly a talent to watch.”

Aïcha (Salha Nasraoui) and her husband Brahim (Mohamed Hassine Grayaa) live with their youngest son Adam (Rayen Mechergui) in the windswept desolation of Tunisia’s rural coastal region. Things have gone quiet around their farm since her two older sons Mehdi and Amine went off to war. Somebody else’s war, to be sure, as the radicalized youngsters have joined ISIS in its efforts to establish a califate, something that brings great shame upon Brahim. Now that his eldest have left he tries to get Adam more involved in the farming, a call reluctantly answered by the boy. “You always yell at me,” he laments, words that will get a deeper meaning later in the film after Mehdi (Malek Mechergui) suddenly returns from the Middle East. Without his brother, who he claims was killed in battle, but with a pregnant wife, Reem (Dea Liane). Silent and with only her striking green eyes visible from under her niqab, the young woman causes unease to creep into the household. Mehdi’s return puts their family in danger, claims Brahim; but motherly love wins out, and Aïcha convinces her husband to let the couple stay and hide on the farm, at least until the baby is born. Her love for her son blinds her to the point that the mysterious disappearances of male villagers seem to pass her by, almost until it’s too late.

Meryam Joobeur’s debut feature Who Do I Belong To is a continuation of sorts of her Oscar-nominated short Brotherhood, but where that film focused on the three brothers of the household, Joobeur’s first full-length effort shifts its gaze to the women, and in particular to Aïcha. Her family is broken since the departure of her two sons; she is despondent and longs for the safe return of her boys, while Brahim tries to bury his worries about what the local authorities would do if his sons were to return by throwing himself into his farm work. The young Adam, sensing the fault lines in his family home, bonds with Bilal (Adam Bessa), a local youth who occasionally recovers stray sheep from Brahim’s flock, in one of the film’s clearest metaphors. Bilal has turned into the son Brahim wishes he always had. The distance between the members of the household is evocatively portrayed by DP Vincent Gonneville’s shallow DoF in the extreme close-ups of the characters. Everything around the focal point seems to lose form, especially when Aïcha is the heart of the scene, as if to say that the world around her has become meaningless now that her family is incomplete. Who does she belong to now, indeed? Once Mehdi returns, Aïcha is torn between her motherhood and her loyalty to Brahim, who is unnerved by the presence of Reem and the danger that his son’s return puts his family in.

Increasingly cryptic, Who Do I Belong To loses itself (and the viewer) in the film’s final act, as Aïcha’s visions of the fate of her other son Amine (Chaker Mechergui) gain clarity; once we find out under what circumstances Mehdi and Reem have met, confusion becomes bewilderment and the film’s narrative goes off the rails. Starting out as a family drama about grief and cruelty, with Gonneville’s saturated cinematography rendering the farm and its surroundings in lush hues that make the region’s bleakness a thing of beauty, the film slowly slips into something more sinister upon the arrival of Mehdi and his bride. The tone of this second act, aptly titled ‘A Darkness Gathers’, is mainly set by the almost ghostly presence of Reem, often looming in a scene’s out-of-focus background like a blend of the titular character of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (the niqab doesn’t help in this regard) and the long-haired monster in horror classic Ringu. Peter Venne’s brooding and ever-darkening score and the oppressive sound design do the rest of the heavy lifting in this visceral, mood-based heart of the film, in which Aïcha’s transcendence comes to the fore and symbolism rules supreme.

After that the film really starts to slip up, as it merges bouts of magical realism, mostly through Aïcha’s dreamlike visions (or are they visionary dreams?), with a foray into the murder mystery genre, as Bilal, apparently a true jack-of-all-trades, tries to solve the vanishings as if he is a detective in the local police force. When suddenly everything we know about Reem, little as it is, is thrown into question, including whether she is actually alive, the befuddled viewer will be grasping at straws once the credits roll. A beautiful yet dark sensorial achievement with a strong sense of place is thus let down by a narrative that gets tangled up in its own web of plot threads, and not even the uniformly excellent cast can prevent a sense of disappointment over the film’s denouement.

Even if the film starts slipping through her fingers like sand on a Tunisian beach, Joobeur’s keen sense of mise-en-scène and ability to create an evocative mood turn Who Do I Belong To into a compelling visceral experience. It is definitely a film for those who are willing to embrace the mystery and just roll with it, although through the eyes of the two female characters in the film, in Reem’s case quite literally, the Tunisian-born director does manage to dig into the film’s titular question; a question that can be seen as a quest for identity as well as an examination of the patriarchy, the latter exemplified by the relationships of Aïcha and Reem to their respective husbands. The former is presented as a strong woman, but it’s Brahim who calls the shots. Yet when it comes to Reem, the niqab might suggest submission, but her silent presence seems to hold sway over Mehdi’s actions. The disruption of the family unit has Aïcha questioning her role in life. “My family is all that I am, so who does my life belong to now?” muses Brahim at one point, a line that applies heavily to his wife’s haunting search for a realignment of her life as well as giving her grief a place to live. Reem’s struggle with her place in the world is long kept in the dark, and Liane has only her eyes to communicate her character’s emotions through, but her fierce gaze pierces the soul and shows a gamut of emotions with overtones of trauma. Even if the women are the focal point, the men struggle with the same questions, most of all Mehdi, a young man who fled his father’s harsh upbringing with dreams of glory; dreams that were dashed by reality and the guilt over far-reaching decisions concerning his brother, throwing him into an almost catatonic state of hopelessness. Who Do I Belong To tries to juggle too many balls at once, but the promise that Joobeur showed with her much-lauded 2018 short is not entirely belied, as the film is an expertly crafted mystery box of repressed emotions and evocative imagery by a director whose voice may not be fully developed yet and who keeps her cards too close to her vest, but is clearly a talent to watch.

Image copyright: Tanit Films, Midi La Nuit, Instinct Bleu