Visions/Tribeca review: Wake Up On Mars

Visions/Tribeca review: Wake Up On Mars

How do you deal with the harsh reality of escaping a country where you’re not wanted, only to find that the safe haven in which you have invested so much hope doesn’t want you either? 


The children in this visually beautiful film, which screens in National Competition, escape through sleeping and dreaming, but their story could have made a bigger impact. 


Swiss-Kosovan director Dea Gjinovci stumbled upon the phenomenon of ‘apathy’ or ‘resignation syndrome’ in a newspaper article. Children were going into a coma, or a hibernation-like state, as a result of trauma and extreme stress.


This is what happens to a significant number of child refugees in Sweden, almost all of them after applications for asylum have been turned down. In the case of the Demiri family, Albanian Romas formerly living in Kosovo, their two now-teenage daughters have been in a coma for several years, and they live, together with their two sons, in Sweden, pending a decision about their final appeal for asylum. 


It is their second time in the Scandinavian country – in 2007 they applied and were denied, and subsequently deported back after three years. The continuing discrimination, violence and prosecution in Kosovo made them return for another attempt.


The parents feed and wash their daughters lovingly and talk to them about their everyday life, which of course revolves around their hopes of being able to stay in Sweden. Kosovo to them was a place of persecution and rejection, and which formed the basis of their daughters’ trauma.


The story of the family is told by their young son Furkan, who tries to escape the situation in his own way: he dreams about building his own rocket to get to Mars and a new life in which he will be respected and loved. He’s a charming and sensitive boy, roaming around junkyards for parts he can use to make his dream come true, which also serves as an allegory for the shattered life he and his family are trying to piece back together.


Gjinovci places Furkan’s ambition at the heart of the story and uses it to braid dreamlike sequences into the film. In the stunning opening scenes, Furkan tells of his gruesome memories of Kosovo, which starkly condradict the serene shots of the two girls sleeping peacefully, the green trees within a snow white landscape or the  quiet residential streets.


Later in the movie, the idyllic picture of Furkan lying in the fresh green grass of spring play in painful counterpoint to his recollection of being grabbed by the throat back in Kosovo, an event he blames for sending one of his sisters into apathy. The scene shows the directors extraordinary eye for light, colour and composition, and adds a welcome sense of lightness to the drama.


Most of the film shows the daily life of the family – eating, talking, visiting family, doing homework – but unfortunately lacks a natural feeling: it feels as if the family members were being directed in order to explain situations and to create a logical order. The scenes where the father and mother take care of their daughters should should move you, but fail to do so, because they seem aware of the camera and overeager to make a statement. The main characters remain distant, just at a point when closeness and engagement are essential.


It is also a shame the intriguing matter of the mysterious disease is not really examined: footage of Swedish news items just touches on the surface and leaves you craving for more information and data. 


Gjinovci’s aesthetic is the redeeming factor in the movie – it takes you to another dimension, where words and actions seem obsolete. The closing scene, which definitely doesn’t feel like documentary, is a testament to her unmistakable talent as a filmmaker and makes you curious about how she would go about a fiction film, when she can turn events completely to her liking.