Shanghai Hidden Gem: Terrorism Hits Home in Wrenching 'Weldi'

Courtesy of Cannes

Mohamed Ben Attia's fact-based entry chronicles a Tunisian couple's desperation after their only son joins an Islamic State terror cell in North Africa.

Mohamed Ben Attia’s second feature after his award-winning Hedi manages to capture some of the horrors inflicted by the Islamic State without once giving us a glimpse of the infamous black flag or a balaclava-clad militant. And yet few would argue that its emotional force lacks power.

The film bowed May 13 in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

Weldi, meaning “Dear Son,” doesn’t set the drama in Mosul or Raqqa, or any of the terror group’s former strongholds, but rather in Ben Attia’s home city of Tunis, the Tunisian capital. A loving couple, Riadh and Nazli, whose lives revolve around their only son, high-school student Sami, are left devastated when he suddenly and unexpectedly disappears, having ventured from North Africa to become an ISIS fighter in its so-called caliphate. While fictitious, the story is grounded in fact: according to a report in 2017, an estimated 7,000 Tunisians joined the Islamic State, making up the largest group of foreign terrorists operating in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

“We’re all very familiar with these situations,” says Ben Attia. “It’s almost commonplace.”

But it was one such case that first piqued the director’s interest — and long before he had any thoughts of making a film. Listening to the radio one day while in rehearsals for Hedi, a father whose son had made the journey detailed his experiences and efforts to bring him home.

“He was doing it without any pathos, he was very factual, giving his account of what he had gone through, and I was so moved that I called the radio to get his contact details.” Without any hidden agenda, Ben Attia spoke to the father, simply to share the emotions he’d felt while hearing his story. “I just introduced myself as a listener who had been touched by his account — there was not even a thought of making a film on the subject.” It was only later, when in post on Hedi and considering his next cinematic move, that the idea emerged.

For research, Ben Attia looked through numerous video materials to come to grips with the indoctrination process while also speaking to Tunisia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to understand the legal details. He says he wanted to explore the complexity of the issue “in order to distance myself from it and to understand the take I wanted to have.”

Of the numerous stories that have emerged from the rubble of the Islamic State, Weldi is likely to be one of the most unusual and emotionally unsettling; a human take that has more to do with the difficulties of daily life and relationships than guns and bloodshed. “I don’t think ISIS is actually the subject of the film,” Attia says. “It’s just a context in the background; the backdrop that creates a crisis.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 9 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.