Montreal Oscar Nominee Meryam Joobeur Discusses "Brotherhood" & Niqab-Wearing Superheroes

MTL Blog caught up with the Concordia grad to discuss the Oscars and her film.
Staff Writer
Montreal Filmmaker Discusses Oscar Nomination For Brotherhood & Niqab-Wearing Superheroes

On a chilly Monday in January, Montreal-based filmmaker Meryam Joobeur woke up to an Oscar nomination for Best Live-Action Short Film for her short film Brotherhood. Joobeur's heartbreaking tale of a Tunisian family divided by the arrival of a niqab-wearing newcomer has captivated audiences around the globe, winning 60 awards in 48 countries. The film is an incredible feat and at only 25 minutes long, it'll leave you wanting to know more about this family and their sleepy Mediterranean paradise that's been ravaged by war and uncertainty.

MTL Blog caught up with the Concordia University alumn to discuss the Oscars, her inspiration, life, and more.

How does it feel being nominated for an Academy Award?

"What moves me more than anything is seeing the reactions from my family and from everyone around me. The love, the support, the excitement — I didn't expect it! When I heard the news [about the Oscar nomination] I was happy but to see the reactions from people in Tunisia and Quebec, that's what really touched me."

"The nomination was so unexpected. I know that Oscar voters are a big group of people and you never know what will speak to them. It's more fickle than a three-person jury at a festival."

What struck me the most was that the film painted a picture of the Muslim community that you never see anywhere. Would you say that the film can be seen as the father's struggle between non-traditional and fundamentalist views?

"The core struggle I see with Mohamed [the father] is the conflict between having a very rigid right and wrong moral compass versus seeing the world in a more complex perspective, gray-toned perspective. I think that's the dilemma that Mohamed represents."

I felt that an overarching element in the film is a sense of finding what it means to be a person and the failures and regrets as a human being. Can you speak to those themes? 

"One of the things that inspired me was when I discovered that a lot of men had gone to fight in Syria from that specific region where we shot the film in Tunisia. I had a moment where I was a bit heartbroken because a lot of this region is isolated — a lot of families don't even have running water."

"But there's a purity and warmth, a generosity within all these people I encountered. I just couldn't imagine what would happen if you plucked a shepherd boy from this region and dumped him in war."

"That's where the regret, the guilt, the shame, and the broken spirit happens. Taking something so pure and dumping it in the violence and chaos of war is where those themes and ideas stem from."

"For the father, I think he realizes by the end of the film the failure of his decisions, the regret of not having communicated. He makes these assumptions about his son because of his sort of rigid, black and white worldview."

"As more information is revealed to him, he starts to realize the image he had built in his mind is not true and it starts to break. That's where his regret and heartache happens because he takes action without knowing anything, without speaking out."

Religion plays an important role in Brotherhood. It was interesting that the parents described Reem (the son's wife) as a "thing." The mother even says "she'll take it off when she gets to know us." You have this family, who I assume is religious, but when faced with someone who's visibly a practicing Muslim, they're very uncomfortable. 

"I think the family is religious in the way that my family is. I'm Muslim, but I don't practice Islam and I don't pray. I still feel a connection to that culture and it's part of my identity. That's how I see the family. They're very moderate Muslims. They have faith, but they're not practicing Muslims."

"When the son's wife arrives with her niqab, it's something very alien to them. It's something they've never really encountered and his mother doesn't really understand it. The father immediately feels threatened and uncomfortable by it and completely judges his son because of his wife."

"It represents a lot of what I observed in Tunisian society. We're a moderate Muslim country. Before the 2011 revolution, the dictator felt very threatened by Islamist groups. Wearing a hijab was illegal and there were cases of women being harassed by the police. Post the revolution, there was a surge, for the first time ever, of women wearing a niqab."

"The way that I see it is that because religion was so suppressed by the dictatorship, once the window was open, people were feeling so insecure and afraid about the future and held on to religion as a comfort. In recent years, there are fewer niqabs and I think it's interesting to see the link between religion and psychological vulnerability."

Why was it important to tell this story at this point in time?

"Going into it, the purest intention I had was that I really wanted to humanize a Tunisian, Arab-Muslim family the way that I experienced it. I grew up in the U.S. after 9/11 and I saw the shift post-9/11 towards the Muslim world."

"In the media, I had a feeling that we were portrayed as almost sub-human in the sense that our pain wasn't to the same degree and that our complexity didn't exist. I was hoping that the story of this little family can open up a conversation about certain stereotypes about the Muslim and Arab world."

As you say, it's a film about a family but I think it speaks to a lot of macro-level issues in our society. Do you think that this story can resonate in Quebec, in a post-Bill 21 world to help people understand the experiences of the Arab world?

"Of course. There's been a lot of conversation about the place of religious symbols in society. But I think what's interesting to me is that the film has resonated even in Japan, which is much farther removed from the reality of what's happening in the Arab world than Canada and the U.S." 

"I definitely felt that people embraced the film and were really touched by it in Quebec. It was beautiful to see and I could feel that many people could project their own family experiences into the characters. It was amazing to see. 

"I mean, we're talking about all these themes and intentions, but the reality is that I made this film as a small passion project. I did not anticipate at all that it would have an impact on people outside the ones making it! It's incredible that a short film can open up these larger conversations."

Are you considering adding to Brotherhood or are you working on a different story, perhaps a feature film? 

"I'm actually working on a feature film that's inspired by Brotherhood! It's a very different perspective, thematically and genre-wise. It was a decision I made while shooting Brotherhood."

"There are many things in this community that I think are important to explore and there are a lot of ways to expand the insights into why things happen in Tunisian society."

Will you be staying in Montreal in the future?

"For me, Montreal is home base. I divide my time between Montreal and Tunisia. These are the places where I feel most at home and my little cinema community is in Montreal. I mean, I definitely don't have any intention of trying to direct a new Marvel film! I want to keep doing films with the people I love, you know? This is home." 

As cool as it would be to see a niqab-wearing superhero...

"[laughs] Who knows, maybe I'll change my mind in five years and maybe become an egomaniac director who wants explosions and guns — anything is possible!"

Do you have any advice you can give to aspiring Montreal filmmakers?

"The biggest lesson I ever got as a filmmaker is to follow your instincts. I met the two older brothers on the side of the road in 2016 and I was struck by them and asked to take their photo."

"They said no, but I left with this feeling that there was something really special about them and the location. When I learned that a lot of the men from that region had gone to fight in Syria, I wrote the script, and a year and a half later, I went to find the boys."

"A lot of things happened that stressed the idea of just following your gut and instincts. Once I felt there was something special and unique about them, I didn't really question that."

"Follow your gut about what stories you have to tell, not stories you think you should be telling. Follow the signs of life and it'll never lead you to the wrong path."

Thank you so much for your time and good luck at the Academy Awards, Meryam. 

"Thank you!" 

You can watch Brotherhood on Vimeo.

The 92nd Academy Awards will take place on February 9, 2020.

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