For once, my favourite films at the Inverness Film Festival were largely in the ‘Highlights’ thread of the festival programme. Given how circumscribed by events beyond my control my film selections were this year, I’m amused to note that my favourites all turned out to be films I’d made a note of during the preview screening, as things I particularly wanted to see.
At some point over the course of this year’s festival I came to realise that the festival had a theme, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, and that the theme was hope. Back in 2019 I concluded that the festival that year was full of brilliant films, but my goodness they were grim. This year, that was not the case – and honestly after the way the last couple of years have panned out, I don’t think I could have coped if they had been – perhaps this year’s films haven’t been quite as ‘blow you away’ good as the 2019 selection, but no matter how dark or sad things got in any film, there was always hope remaining. I didn’t walk out of any feature film at this year’s festival without hope for the future in my heart.
When I was child, one of my favourite genres of stories, were time travel fantasies. It’s an oddly specific kind of story that there were a surprisingly large number available. These books involved time travel but no time machines, and weren’t portal fantasies because even if the travel involved going through a particular door or geographical location the other place they arrived in was always this world and not another world. The time travel was usually preceded by some dramatic emotional upheaval, a death in the family, a parental divorce or some other crisis that meant the travelling child and all or part of their family had to leave their home and decamp to an unfamiliar locale. They almost always involved the travelling child befriending another child from the other time and helping them resolve some event that either impacted or mirrored a problem affecting them in the present. The other child almost always turned out to be a relative – an uncle, grand-parent or occasionally a more distant ancestor – of the protagonist child. I loved those stories, and they almost never got adapted into films.
I suspect that Céline Sciamma loved those kind of books too – she is, after all, only a few years older than me – and was likewise disappointed that they never got adapted into films. This film feels like a love letter to those kind of books, almost the platonic ideal because it isn’t an adaptation of any one of those books, more a distillation of the best of them. (Casting a set of identical twins to play the central characters is just perfect.) I’m not sure that you could call it a children’s film – though I think the kind of child who loves those kind of stories would love it and there’s nothing in it that makes it unsuitable for a child – but it is a film for adults who loved those kind of books, and longed for screen adaptations that did them justice. It’s heartwarming and bittersweet, and just perfect at what it does.
I saw this film with an extremely select audience – it was playing opposite Mothering Sunday (Husson, 2021) which looked very heritage and Sunday evening literary adaptation, and suffered for it – but that shouldn’t be taken as judgement on the film, it absolutely deserves to be seen by lots of people. I’m not a hundred percent certain whether I should be writing about this film under the category of documentary or not. Officially it’s an animated documentary about the true story of how ‘Amin’, a former classmate of the director, came to arrive in Denmark as an unaccompanied teenage refugee from Afghanistan some twenty years ago. There’s a certain amount of archive footage used to illustrate the historical and political background to events described, but most of the film is animated and necessarily subjective, it’s about the experience of being a refugee. It’s about how it feels on the inside not about how it looks on the outside. Pseudonyms are used and voices disguised – some of the cast are simply credited as ‘anonymous’ – because the film is in it’s way a confession. The story it tells is one that needs to be told, for the sake of Amin’s sanity and peace of mind if nothing else, but it’s one that could destroy the life he has built for himself, so it is one that needs telling with even more care and caution than that which would normally be required in telling a refugee story properly. It’s a strange sort of comfort knowing that Amin co-wrote the film with director Rasmussen, to feel that it really is a collaboration, and that for at least once in his life, Amin gets to be in charge of his own story.
(Amin is about my age. There are a lot of tiny little cultural references in his story and in the archive pictures that are familiar from my own vastly different childhood. In many ways time moves strangely in this film, but nonetheless, that stuck with me throughout the film: he’s about my age.)
The film reminded me initially just superficially, but as the film went on more substantially, of the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir (Folman, 2008). There’s something about the way the animation technique foregrounds the necessarily constructed nature of the reality the documentary is portraying, at once creating an intimacy and a necessary distance that wouldn’t be available otherwise. All memory is subjective, being at once intensely personal and collective. Combine that with trauma and the kind of lies people have to tell – whether to themselves or other people – to stay alive, and it becomes difficult to imagine how you could tell the story in a other way.
Apparently there’s going to be an English language dub of the film – possibly with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Riz Ahmed who were both executive producers for the film – but I feel it would lose something in the process. There’s something about how Danish Amin sounds in the film that works on a subconscious level, reminds you throughout that Amin has been in Denmark for twenty years, that it has become his home as well as his refuge, the place where he belongs.
This was a beautiful tender, heartbreaking film, about family and community, love and grief, pregnancy and motherhood.
There is so much unspoken in this film. At the start both woman are very emotionally closed off – one because of grief, the other from the stress of being heavily pregnant and homeless – and slowly, cautiously, with many fits and starts and a couple of outright regressions, they begin to open up to each other. Food sits at the heart of the film, Abla runs a bakery and while her grudging and eventually wholehearted allowing Samia into the kitchen might sound like a clumsy and awkward metaphor for opening up her affections to Samia, it practice it is both fitting and entirely natural in execution.
Most of the talking in the film is done by Wardia, Abla’s young daughter. It’s Wardia who first takes an interest in Samia, who acts as go between and says all the things that otherwise cannot be said with a child’s clear eyed honesty. The relationship that evolves between Wardia and Samia is one of the film’s great strengths, with Samia becoming something between older sister and aunt to Wardia as the film progresses. It’s a remarkably restrained performance from the young actress, being both charming and blunt enough to be believable as an actual child – the unspoken asides and facial expressions are priceless and joyful – and helpful to the plot without being either cloying or irritatingly wise beyond her years.
The film may largely be about the importance of having relationships where you can say all the things that society pressures us not to say – about life, death, pregnancy, love, grief and society – and how freeing it can be to finally speak those things out loud, but a great deal remains unspoken in the film. Right up to the last moment you can feel the pressure of all the things that Abla and Samia aren’t saying to each other, perhaps could never say to each other. (It feels like there’s a ghost of another film within this one, where the four of them stay together and form a new family, where the relationship between the two women, whether platonic or romantic is the centre of the film, where it is enough for them both. However I don’t know enough about the practicalities of life in Morocco to know whether either of those outcomes would be remotely practical or believable.) The ending is deeply ambiguous for both women, will Samia give Adam up or keep him, will Abla continue the work of unwinding enough to let in Slimani? Will they ever see each other again? Perhaps that’s the best ending director Maryam Touzani could give the audience, there could be no ending to this story that satisfied every audience, so perhaps it is kinder to leave it open to interpretation, and let every audience member invent their own afterwards for the characters, choose whichever fate makes them happiest.