Four young children live with their mother and father, a Free Syrian Commander, in a warzone in Aleppo, Syria. After their father is captured by ISIS, the children flee with their mother to Goslar, Germany, in a years-long journey that will test them all as they try to find a safe home in a foreign country.
Director: Marcel Mettelsiefen
Of all of the Academy Award nominated short documentaries, this is arguably the most ambitious. With a production timeframe of three years and locations that cross three countries, including an active war zone, this story of a family’s journey from the relentless despair of civil war to an almost unimaginable new future is an exercise in audacious faith.
Embedding himself in the besieged Aleppo with the Abu Ali Slaibeh, his wife Hala Kamil and their children while the Syrian civil war is in full swing, director Marcel Mettelsiefen and his crew take great pains to illustrate the concept of raising children in a country descending into oblivion. One of the most startling aspects of the film, established in its opening moments, is how normalised it has become to live in the ruins of war. This normalisation, however, does not immunise families carving out an existence in other people’s abandoned homes, from the mortal fear that comes with living as constant targets of an emboldened government military.
In one notable scene, seven year-old Farah recalls an incident involving her cousins when the interview is interrupted by the sound of nearby shelling. In that moment we see the instinctive fear in her eyes that is shared between every resident of the rebel-held city, simmering just below the surface. But even more disarming than that is her ability to identify the ordnance that was just fired simply by sound alone – a skill that a seven year-old child simply should not have. Whether you are an armed combatant or an unarmed child, the prospect of a sudden and violent death is an inescapable fact of life.
While the film employs certain tools to illicit emotion, such as deep strings over montages of eviscerated landscapes or journeys by road as their home is left behind, Mettelsiefen does well not to rely on such tactics as a crutch. Instead he relies on the individual stories of each family member. The production team as a whole displays their well-honed talents for eliciting trust from their subjects as they encourage each member of the family not just to deliver an account of events but to emotionally relive them. We know from the beginning how much these children love their father, not simply because they say so, but through the genuine passion and at times tenderness with which it is expressed. This lays a solid emotional foundation for the harrowing story to come that sets the family on their journey to escape Syria for refuge in Germany.
The family’s matriarch, Hala is the anchor for this film’s story. While much of the accounts we see from the children are the feelings and experiences of their tumultuous journey, it is Hala who truly understands the depth of the challenge that the family faces. As such she comes to represent the film’s stakes to the audience. She carries the burdens of the family while betraying none of the apprehension, grief or guilt that seem to become integral aspects of her existence. It is only when the situation is at its most uncertain that she reveals the depth of her loneliness.
See Hala deliver a speech at the World Humanitarian Day event in New York, translated by Yasmine Al Massri.
Over and above any technique that is employed to maximise the emotional impact of the story (save for the story itself), what really shines through is the filmmaker’s commitment to the family and their journey. The effect of watching the children grow and change as the family leaves behind loved ones, travels broken roads and crosses borders cannot be overstated. When combined with the striking photography of Mettelsiefen and camera operators Lucas Augustin and Mike Simpson, we are given an experience of striking observation and intimate imagery that allows us to fully invest in the lives of a family fundamentally not so different from our own, living through circumstances that could not be further from our reality.
‘Watani: My Homeland’ is a master class in documentary filmmaking and an experience that will not soon leave you.
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Photo Credit: Alina Emrich / Courtesy of Grain Media