Mira Jargil’s film title carries neither a question nor an exclamation mark, so we are kept guessing until the end as to whether a Syrian family divided by war can be united once more.
When the desperate Rana, a paediatrician and mother of two, arrived in Greece from Turkey in a rubber dinghy, a reporter from ABC News Australia was on the shore to ask her which country she wanted to settle in. Her answer was simple and direct: “Any country please.” She was alone.
Her eventual terminus was Denmark where, a year later, we see her in a classroom learning Danish. She may have an ear for the new language, but her thoughts are very much elsewhere.
The war in Syria has separated her from her family. She was living and working in Aleppo. Her husband Mukhles was also a doctor, administering to the Syrian national football team. But when the civil war intervened they vowed to find a safer life. She made it to northern Europe, but her husband ended up in Canada. Meanwhile their two sons, Nidal (17) and Jad (11), remain in the Turkish city of Mersin.
The family members may communicate each day by Skype, but the strain of separation weighs heavily on each, especially the boys who feel exposed and vulnerable in a city they believe is hostile to the Syrian refugees. As Nidal becomes more and introverted, Jad begins to suffer from nightmares. When they speak on the phone, they rarely smile.
But the more Rana tries to find a solution to the dilemma of their reunification, the more labyrinthine is the bureaucracy that she must navigate to achieve any resolution. Time and again, hopes are denied and promises are dashed. At one point when the boys are given the ok to travel, Rana is left waiting in vain at Copenhagen Airport as news comes through that they were refused permission to board the plane in Turkey.
There is an eventual resolution, details of which I will not reveal, but the road to it is tortuous, nerve-wracking and emotionally draining.
Danish director Mira Jargil, herself the mother of one boy and (at the time) pregnant with another, heard about Rana through a friend. When they met there was an immediate chemistry, she says, and for the two women the film became “a common project”.
“To be honest I never turn off my emotions, it’s always ‘human before film’, and I spend so much time without a camera with the people that I shoot,” she says. “For me, I only film people that I like, and I only point the camera at people who want to be filmed.”
Which explains her reaction at the airport when Rana signals to her that the boys won’t be coming through the arrival gates. “I was totally devastated and I cried like a baby with her,” she says. “I was not in that situation where I thought ‘oh, that is good for my film.’ I was just totally devastated. So it’s really been an emotional journey.”
Shooting in three cities entailed Jargil flying back and forth across Europe while enlisting the support of her husband Christian Sønderby Jepsen, also a filmmaker, to shoot the Canada sequences, staying with Mukhles in his apartment.
Jargil’s own presence in Turkey was, she felt, a comfort to the boys in the absence of their mother whose visa application was rejected.
“I think they (the boys) were quite nervous before I came there and of course I was also really nervous to meet them, because what if they didn’t want me to be there or to film,” she says. “[But] we had a really good chemistry and they were happy that I could be there and that they weren’t alone, and for Rana it was nice to have a witness…They were just really beautiful boys and of course devastated that they were there on their own, and there was a big responsibility for Nidal as he had become a parent for the little one.”
The family, Jargil observes, developed different ways of dealing with the trauma of being apart. The father’s way of dealing with it is to look at old pictures of the kids, fixating on how they were in the phone footage from their home in Syria. “He is living in the past and she is moving forward into the future,” says the director.
Jargil further points out that the story had to be told, irrespective of how it eventually turned out. “That’s how it is with these documentaries. You never know how it will end and it always takes different directions than you imagine. That’s how life is, but I follow the reality, whatever happens… As Rana says at the end, what we lost will never come back. They lost a big part of their childhood, and she lost a big part of their childhood, and none of them can ever go back to what they were.”
She adds: “My ambition with this film was really to show the human face behind the general numbers. Here in Denmark we hear a lot about how many refugees to take in and how many to reject… but I was really moved when the father sent me the home recordings from the life that they had in Aleppo back in the day. It’s because it’s not anything special. It’s something that I would film with my son and therefore something I could really identify with.
“[Their dilemma] could have been me, it could have been you. They just ended up in a situation that didn’t have anything to do with them, and suddenly they are refugees and considered second-class citizens. That was what I wanted people to reflect on in this film.”