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‘Who Do I Belong To’ Review: Meryam Joobeur’s Handsomely Crafted Debut as a Tunisian-American Director

Debuting in Competition at Berlin, this Arabic-language drama delves into family connections on a Tunisian farm, showcasing the director’s first-time feature film effort as she expands upon her Oscar-nominated 2018 short ‘Brotherhood.’

'Who Do I Belong To'

In Meryam Joobeur’s debut feature film “Who Do I Belong To,” Aïcha (Salha Nasraoui) and her husband Brahim (Mohamed Hassine Grayaa) reside on a farm in northern Tunisia, depicting a modern rural setting filled with goats, trucks, homemade meals, and strong familial bonds. The film’s early sequence, portraying Aïcha shaving Brahim’s face, serves as an intimate and trusting moment that highlights the director’s aesthetic approach. Cinematographer Vincent Gonneville utilizes frequent extreme close-ups on the actors’ faces, creating a visual style that captures the essence of the characters. The camera’s proximity to the actors’ faces is so intense that they almost resemble landscapes, with facial features taking on a landscape-like quality when observed from such close proximity. For instance, in the shaving scene, Grayaa’s cheeks, covered in shaving foam, evoke the image of mountains hidden beneath layers of snow.

The “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) is designated as a terrorist organization by numerous countries and international organizations, including the United Nations Security Council and the European Union.

Dea Liane delivers a captivating performance as Reem, Mehdi’s enigmatic new wife, challenging any preconceived notions about the difficulty of portraying a character with a mostly covered face and limited dialogue. Despite her niqab concealing much of her face, Liane’s eyes shine with an extraordinary depth, conveying a wide range of emotions, from trauma and vulnerability to an underlying sense of menace. The intensity of her gaze feels almost otherworldly, adding to the film’s mystical atmosphere, even without explicitly supernatural elements.

These mystical elements are predominantly associated with matriarch Aïcha, portrayed with poignant stoicism by Salha Nasraoui. Aïcha’s powerful subconscious often threatens to blur the lines between dream and reality, leaving viewers uncertain whether they are witnessing actual events or Aïcha’s vivid dreams. This deliberate blurring of reality creates a disorienting yet mesmerizing viewing experience, challenging the audience’s reliance on empirical truth in favor of a more intuitive understanding.

“Who Do I Belong To” demands a receptive audience, inviting viewers to let their guard down and immerse themselves in the film’s dreamlike narrative. However, this openness also makes the film’s scenes of violence more difficult to process when they occur, as Joobeur delivers unexpected emotional punches that leave a lasting impact on the audience.

The “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) is designated as a terrorist organization by numerous countries and international organizations, including the United Nations Security Council and the European Union.

Joobeur’s debut film’s inclusion in the Berlinale Competition is a promising achievement that is likely to bolster its sales and distribution prospects. However, the film’s commercial success may be hindered by its somber subject matter and the absence of well-known actors. The cast comprises a blend of seasoned professionals and newcomers, with a noteworthy backstory behind the casting of the brothers Mehdi, Adam, and Amine.

Malek and Chaker were initially cast in Joobeur’s Oscar-nominated 2018 short film “Brotherhood” approximately a year after she first encountered them while photographing their father’s sheep in Tunisia. Joobeur not only sought out the brothers when she embarked on the short film project but also adhered to her original casting decision when expanding the short into a feature-length film. Additionally, the inclusion of their younger brother Rayen in the film further enhances the authenticity of the familial dynamic portrayed on screen.

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