How to Cope When Your Son Joins ISIS?

In Belgium everybody knows somebody connected to a victim of terrorism, if not the victim themselves, said the Belgian assistant to Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia. In Tunisia, on the other hand, everybody knows somebody who went to Syria or somebody whose loved one did it, responded Attia. This fact motivated him to explore and make this film.

On one occasion, when he was listening to the radio in his car, he heard a father searching for his missing son. At that time many people in Tunisia were searching for their loved one through TV, radio or newspapers, and it turned out that these people mostly joined ISIS or other Islamist groups. Attia was particularly moved by this desperate father’s cry because the man was extremely detailed in the description of his pain. It inspired him to make a film which would not focus on the reasons why someone joined ISIS, but rather on the feelings of their near and dear ones.

The protagonist of Dear Son is Riadh, a forklift driver in a Tunisian harbour ready for retirement. The focus of his and his wife’s life is their only son, getting ready for high school exams. However, the boy’s continual migraine spurts cause great concern to his parents. When he finally appears to get better, he disappears. The film follows his parent’s feelings and desperation.

Mohamed Ben Attia says he was lucky with the amazing cast – he found the actors for the roles of the father and the son the very first day of the casting. The casting director was thinking of Mohamed Dhrif for the father and the director immediately liked him. The son is played by young Zakaria Ben Ayed, a guitarist, singer and composer. The story how Attia chose Mouna Mejri for the role of the mother is particularly interesting. She is the mother of the leading actor in the director’s previous film Hedi, who suggested her to Attia, believing she was perfect for the character. It took a long time to persuade her, since she had never acted before, but in the end she did a great job. And the rest of the cast is composed of amateurs, which required a lot of effort and coordination, especially since the film was made in less than two months.

The Tunisian director made his debut film Hedi in 2016, winning awards for best debut film and the Silver Bear for best actor at Berlinale. The film and the cast won awards at several other festivals as well. His second film Dear Son has already been screened in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, in Karlovy Vary and at other festivals. The fact that Attia’s work is supported by the famous Dardenne brothers, who co-produced both of his films, is quite telling of his talent.