T’es où Youssef?

When hearing about extremism or radicalisation, our first reaction is often to distance ourselves as much as possible by making a clear distinction between “them” and “us”. To look away or to blame others can become quite comforting when we know nothing about the people involved. But how must we react when the radicalised person is a loved one? How can a loving and empathetic individual be attracted to a violent, radical organization? Our conversation with a duo, unafraid to reach out to meet others: Mathieu Paiement, Executive Producer (Blimp TV) and Gabriel Allard, Director of T’es où Youssef?

It all started in 2014, when journalist Raed Hammoud was shocked to find out that one of his friends, Youssef, had left Quebec to join the Jihad. Why and how did a sweet and caring boy like Youssef leave everything behind to go risk his life in Syria? At first, Raed wanted to speak with radicalisation specialists to better understand the phenomenon. But Sophie Bélanger, one of Raed’s colleagues, got him in touch with Mathieu Paiement and Gabriel Allard. Mathieu remembers his first conversations with the project’s instigator: “Raed did not necessarily want the story to be about him, but we wanted to present him as the one searching for Youssef; the investigator. He was on board with our vision when we promised him to make the best possible movie out of his story”. 

Mathieu Paiement, executive producer

Lost in the desert

To find someone on another continent is not an easy task, but the team could not imagine how great the challenge awaiting them would be. Gabriel Allard confirms it: “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into at first, on every level. Newspapers and the police talked about a disappearance with a possible enrolment in the Islamic State, but nothing was certain. Since he left without telling anyone, we had no clue. We did not even know if he was alive.”

Where to start such a search? Probably with Youssef’s loved ones, who could maybe share some information. However, Mathieu Paiement explains that it was not that easy: “It was a challenge until the very end because the loved ones were hesitant to take part in the project. We put ourselves in their shoes: Youssef’s disappearance was a traumatic event in itself. Add the police, the journalists and us, the filmmakers, who come after them to dig up this painful story… It becomes difficult for the family members.” Gabriel Allard agrees: “We often forget that these people get calls from the RCMP every month as soon as there were news about terrorism. They were under constant and we understand it. On a human level, these people became our friends. However, we still had a job to do and the topic is fascinating. We could then talk with them all night long in the hopes of gaining their trust and having a constructive conversation about our subject, but they shied away as soon as we asked questions about Youssef. We could not force anything. To take the time to get answers was the main challenge, even though, looking back, I am happy we did it. Out of nine months of production, we searched for eight months.”

The team had to show a lot of patience, perseverance and tact to get answers. For example, some participants were afraid that revealing information for the movie would break Youssef’s trust in them if he ever found out and then, all hope of him returning home someday would have be lost. Ironically, as Youssef was probably somewhere in the desert of Syria, the team at Blimp was confronted with its own desert of unanswered questions.

Raed Hammoud on the quest

Exposing one’s truth

The team tried by any means possible to get interviews, but they got rejected over and over again. However, in order to get to others’ truth, sometimes the best way is to expose your own, as Gabriel understood it: “Those we managed to convince to take part in the movie did so because we made them understand our deep motivation and good intentions. We wanted to make this movie so that other young people would stay out of the clutches of terrorist organizations and to make the public aware of the dynamics at play. At first, we tried to hide our goals to get interviews, but if the end justifies the means, it does not mean to be dishonest and beating around the bush. We have to be transparent. When Youssef’s sisters understood the type of work we wanted to do, it made all the difference.” 

In Turkey

The inner storm

The issues and the challenges did not only come from the outside, as explained by the executive producer: “On the inside, it was a great challenge to move forward all together and to trust each other until the end. Leila, Youssef’s sister, wanted to approve the movie to make sure that her brother’s reputation would remain unsullied. Raed, who was the face of the operation, gave much importance to the media treatment. Everybody had their own hesitations and it created tensions.” What to do if the movie’s protagonists are afraid that it will be misunderstood? Mathieu Paiement, in a moment of impatience, said to Raed Hammoud: “You will change your mind once we win a Gémeaux Award!” This sentence, said in desperation, practically became a prophecy since T’es où Youssef? dominated the 32nd Gémeaux Awards night by winning four awards, including one for best documentary program (society); as well awards for best director and best research. 

Looking back, we can see that everyone’s questions were beneficial: “Leila and Raed brought another perspective to ensure that we stayed away for the sensationalism often made by the media regarding these topics. It was essential to remain connected with our intentions “explains Gabriel. “It was important to find good balance; we could not depict the terrorist groups by using clichés or by being cheesy. We had to remain neutral and objective,” adds Mathieu. 

Raed Hammourd and Gabriel Allard, Director

After the film

After spending months working on this sensitive and complex project, the production team finally had a break, as said by the director: “The end of the movie was a relief! We were spent! As soon as the movie was well received by the public, the pressure fell off. We had no idea how it would be received! The fact that nobody was angry with us after the film was already a victory. Every positive comment was a bonus!”  

Aside from the good reviews and awards, what Mathieu and Gabriel are the proudest of is the message shared by the documentary. “What I like about the movie is that we simply talk about a young man who wanted a change”, says Gabriel Allard. “Youssef had this great desire for peace and social justice. He could have turned to any group, but sadly, a terrorist organization is what was accessible to him while he was most vulnerable. It is not a religion, but a group that recruits people by exploiting the dreamer, idealist and utopist side of young people. Every revolutionary starts that way and events take a turn at some point or another, but we rarely explain this. I’m happy we could help shed light on the nuances of the story.” Mathieu Paiement agrees: “Youssef’s story reminds us that they are not all violent bloodthirsty people who slide into terrorism. Instead of judging those who took this path, maybe we could ask ourselves what brought them to make that choice, to help prevent it.”

T’es où Youssef?, the documentary, is available on the Télé-Québec website. To learn more, follow the Journal du film available as a podcast iTunes.