Delivering one of the most powerful films of the year with “Brotherhood“, director Meryam Joobeur explores the far-reaching impact of ISIS through a story set in rural Tunisia. It follows the tensions afflicting a family when its eldest son returns from Syria after fighting for ISIS in Syria. Stunningly shot and devastatingly acted, “Brotherhood” has enjoyed a remarkable festival run en route to being shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short film. Below is an edited version of my recent interview with Joobeur, as we discussed the making of this award-winning film.
Shane Slater: The setting of “Brotherhood” is quite interesting because so many films related to the ISIS situation are set in city regions. Why did you chose to set the story in a more rural area?
Meryam Joobeur: The whole project came about through a chance encounter. I met the three brothers in the film – they are actual brothers – by chance in 2016 on the side of the road. The village where we shot is where they live. And I learned that a lot of young men and men, in general, had gone to Syria from this region.
So I thought it would be interesting to set it in a place that’s more rural and you get a sense of how widespread the ramifications of ISIS has been on the world. It’s not just city boys. The Syrian experience is shared by young men in rural Tunisia, where there’s no running water. I thought it would be interesting to show this perspective, especially the perspective of coming home. I felt there hasn’t been that perspective of the complications of coming home. And also showing coming home to parents that disapprove of what you’ve done. It underlines this notion that the majority of Tunisians do not support this and it’s a really complicated thing when the daughters or sons are coming back.
SS: And you worked with real brothers to show this.
MJ: Yeah, they’re three brothers and I saw the two older ones on the side of the road with a herd of sheep. And I stopped my car because I wanted to take their photo and they said no actually. [Laughs]. It’s still kind of hard to explain why that two minute encounter had such a big impact on me. But there was just something in their eyes and faces that lasted. And I kept thinking about them for the next year and a half. I wrote the script and then I went looking for them afterwards because I wrote the script for them. They’re the ones who I envisioned in the roles.
SS: Were they involved in the casting of the other characters?
MJ: Not really. I let the casting of the others happen in a kind of similar way. For example, the actor who played the father is a well known Tunisian actor. Just from his photograph I just felt like he was perfect for the role. His face is just so striking and there’s such a power in his eyes and a vulnerability. So I knew that he would be right for the role. And the same thing for the mother. She just radiated a certain warmth that I liked. Thankfully they both were physically convincing enough to be the parents because that’s what I was worried about initially.
SS: The actors brought such a sense of unspoken tensions and history. Did you give them a lot of backstory or was it mostly from their own interpretation?
MJ: I think the whole process on set ended up being very collaborative because Salha and Mohamed, the two professional actors, worked with me on translating the dialogue. So they were a big part of translating the dialogue into Arabic because I write in English. In that process, we were able to shape the characters and their histories more. There’s a certain wordplay I really liked that they proposed in the dinner scene for example.
SS: The cinematography is so impressive. How did you approach the visuals?
MJ: I’ve been working with the same cinematographer since my film school days. His name is Vincent. And Vincent is one of my closest creative collaborators. He was there the first day I saw the boys. So our relationship is that we start working together when there’s the inception of an idea. And we were really interested in portrait photography when we were developing this. We weren’t really referencing films. The aspect ratio was something that Vincent proposed and I ended up liking it because I felt with a more claustrophobic feel, your focus is really on the subtle movements of the faces and the reactions. And everything that was unsaid could be highlighted a lot more.
The whole project started with the faces of these boys, so it was also symbolic for me. We worked mostly with natural light, we had a tiny team. Vincent didn’t really have any tech. So we worked with natural light on set and tried to keep it really simple with handheld cameras to give the actors more liberty given the fact that it was the first time the boys were acting.
SS: The film has played festivals all over the world. Has there been anything surprising about the audience response?
MJ: For me, I think the biggest surprise was how much the film resonated beyond borders. Previously when doing films and working, I used to feel a lot of pressure from festivals and getting my work out there.
With this project I decided to do a 180. I wanted it to be this intimate project with a small group of people and then show it in Tunisia. So once it started traveling, I was really amazed that it resonated so much with people and how much people were able to identify with the characters. And it’s been fun to see how certain cultures read the symbology. For example, in Italy it was about the prodigal son returning and the sheep. There was certain symbology that different cultures related to. That was interesting to see. Overall, it was touching to see people react and feel that it was a very human story.
SS: Do you think you’ll come back to this story for a feature? I feel like there is so much material there.
MJ: Actually I am developing a feature adaptation of the story. That idea came while shooting the film. Like you said, I felt there was a lot more to explore and lot more for audiences to understand about the wider society, the different characters and their motivations. So I’m actually in the process of finalizing the script for that.