In Meryam Joobeur’s Oscar nominated short Brotherhood, the heavy and ingrained dynamics of family exact a tragic toll. Set over the course of several fraught days at a Tunisian family’s farm -where the slow, silent rhythms of their agricultural lifestyle have swallowed up their unspoken emotions – the uneasy status quo is about to be ruptured by the return of long-missing eldest son Malek. Malek (Malek Mechergui) is returning from Syria after abandoning his family to fight for Isis, and he brings with him a young girl named Reem (Jasmin Yazid), apparently pregnant with his child.
This, as we find out, is not the whole story. Communication unfortunately does not come easily to this family, and a tragic revelation later on will throw everything before into question. Brotherhood gracefully avoids the potential pitfalls of its challenging premise by instead delving into the sadness and strife caused when family needs to communicate but can’t.
Joobeur cannily realises that whilst confrontations often spell out how a family dynamic has deteriorated (and there are confrontations), the most honest way to get at the emotional truth is to observe it.
What Joobeur finds (in earthy, visceral camera work and a disarming Academy ratio) is a family held in place by two powerful parents, the stern Salha (Salha Nasraoui) and unyielding Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ). Both actors imbue their characters with a powerful sense of emotion withheld for what they imagine is their children’s own good. Grayaâ in particular sets a scowl over his face that seems to hold a universe of discontent.
In the opening scene Mohamed stoically instructs his hesitant middle son (Chaker Mechergui) to kill an injured sheep. This, we see, is simply how things are. Do as I say, kill the sheep, hide your feelings. Joobeur uncovers the repressed sensitivity of the young actors so naturally that when they do finally speak their thoughts it feels revelatory. Such expressions spring from the bond, as the title suggests, of brotherhood, the boys’ shared experience of life under their parents.
On all counts Meryam Joobeur succeeds. Brotherhood marks another step forward for an incredibly promising filmmaker already accomplished in her craft, sensitive to the story and to the characters, attune to environment and nature, making bold choices with authority. Her talented cast deserve huge praise for their fully realised turns.
The only issue in Joobeur’s understated approach to characterisation is that you may want more of the characters before the climactic ending. It looks like Joobeur anticipated a bigger story too: she’s developing the plot into a feature film called Motherhood. If this short is anything to go by, Motherhood will be monumental.
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