Fate, farmers and Meryam Joobeur's desperate search to find two mysterious roadside faces

After the Tunisian director spotted redheaded shepherds on a country road, it sparked a wild ride of creating an entire film around them – before convincing them to be the stars

Malek Joobeur in Who Do I Belong To, which will have its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. Photo: LuxBox
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The strangest of circumstances led Tunisian filmmaker Meryam Joobeur to stumble across the leads for her debut feature Who Do I Belong To.

Driving through the north of the country with her cinematographer Vincent Gonneville, she spotted two redheaded sheep farmers sitting by the side of the road. “I remember making eye contact,” she says. “And I was like: ‘Oh, wow, what a face!’”

Joobeur asked to take their picture and they refused, but she was unable to forget them.

“I didn’t even know their names," she adds. "I hadn’t even written down the village [where they lived]. But it’s that weird thing where your instinct tells you there’s something and you can’t let it go. So I kept thinking about them.”

More than that, she began to craft a script around the distinct-looking siblings. “When I look back, I'm like: ‘Wow, it’s crazy,'" referring to the "tenacity and blind faith" she had. However, she felt they were destined to act in the film.

The resulting movie, which will have its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday, deals with a family left devastated after its two eldest sons Mehdi and Amine leave for Syria to join ISIS.

Then Mehdi returns with a new wife, whose enigmatic presence drives the very tragic and disturbing story.

Joobeur desperately wanted the sheep farmers to play the lead roles. As a result, a year later, she went back to the region to find them. “We had to go from village to village asking: ‘Do you guys know any redheaded brothers with sheep?’”

Eventually, they located the pair, Malek and Chaker Mechergui, in the small coastal village of Louka, but then came an even stranger moment of fate.

Joobeur had written the script with a third, and much younger, brother living with their parents at home. As fate would have it, when they finally found the Mechergui home, the first person to emerge was a redheaded boy with freckles – Malek and Chaker’s much younger brother, Rayen.

“I didn’t know he existed,” says Joobeur, understandably taken aback. “It was one of the most profound experiences in my life because it was just a big moment of trusting your instincts.”

Even then, Joobeur had to convince the brothers – who previously didn’t even want their photo taken – to act.

“At the time, I had a shaved head," she says. "I looked like I was coming out of nowhere with this crazy proposal. I mean, think about it: somebody you met for two minutes, comes back after a year and says: ‘I wrote a script for you. Do you want to act?’” Again they refused.

“Their father was obviously worried and confused: what is this story?” Eventually, after some persuasion, they relented. “It was,” she adds, “just meant to be.”

When we talk over Zoom, Joobeur is already in Berlin, and not merely for the film festival. She’s in town for an intensive dance programme.

Making the film over five years and “carrying the suffering” of her characters has been mentally draining, so much so that Joobeur felt the need to try something “a little bit different” like dance as a way of recuperating.

Although already an Oscar-nominated filmmaker for her 2018 short Brotherhood, making the jump to features has been tough. She adds: “It wasn’t easy at all. I was obviously called to do it … but there were moments where I just wanted to hide under a bed and cry.”

But the question remains, what drew her to such traumatic material in the first place? “A lot of men from that region had gone to Syria to fight with Daesh. And so I was really surprised by that,” she says.

“Since I was young, I was always fascinated by what propels people to do extreme acts, especially in terms of violence. And so that’s where the spark came from.

"Sometimes when we’re tackling these big global issues, it’s a lot to take in and a lot to fathom. And now with time and experience, I feel the easiest way to digest things is to look at them on a micro level and look at the building blocks of society.”

The film was also a way for Joobeur to explore her own identity. She has lived in Montreal since she was 17 having grown up in post-9/11 America.

Although she comes from a Muslim household, she says she had the "strange privilege" of avoiding racism because she "doesn't look Muslim". She adds: "But I’ve seen it within my family and within the community.”

Now, of course, she has time to reflect on what has been an intense period. “I think a film is always going to be an odyssey," she adds." But every film has a different DNA and the journey is a bit different.

“Maybe I’ll do a musical comedy next.”

Who Do I Belong To will screen at the Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday. A date for it to be released in cinemas is yet to be confirmed

Updated: March 01, 2024, 8:50 AM