69 Minutes of 86 Days: Innocence on the road to safety
by Vladan Petkovic
- This new refugee-themed documentary focuses on an innocent little girl, full of spirit and hope, as she travels with her family to Sweden
Norwegian director and cinematographer Egil Håskjold Larsen's first feature, 69 Minutes of 86 Days, is a fresh breeze blowing over the sea of refugee-themed documentaries that have been splashing festival shores for years now – ever since the exodus from Syria started. The film follows a three-year-old girl on her trip from Greece to Sweden, together with her extended family, and what sets it apart, aside from her energy and indestructible hope for life, is the fact that the film adopts her point of view.
The movie opens with a beach littered with torn travel bags, ripped tents and discarded shoes, and the camera then keeps panning until it reaches a makeshift refugee camp in the marina of a Greek island town. It is early morning, and the inhabitants of the tents are slowly coming out and glancing at the camera, which will keep panning and tracking until the end of the film. Whether handheld or on a dolly or Steadicam, it stops only intermittently, which gives a strong impression of a fiction, rather than a documentary film.
Soon, in the line of people heading towards a ferry, we spot Lean, the little girl who is the main protagonist of the film. She is sitting on the shoulders of her father, with a Frozen backpack on her own back. The father is wearing a hoodie, an Adidas backpack and Nike shoes. This is a family like our own; these people are just like our neighbours. The only, but huge, difference is that they have lost their home and are on their way to a new one – one with their relatives who live in Sweden.
There are no interviews or voice-overs; the filmmaker follows the family, which also includes Lean’s mother and sister as well as her uncles (although exact relations are not specified), as they wait at the Macedonian border, then get into a car driven by a Serbian, walk through Hungarian fields, get on a train in Austria, and then board a bus in Germany. But these locations are not identified with narrative titles – the viewer can determine their geographical position only by means of road signs, railway station instructions or the language spoken in some of the scenes.
Technically, it is a beautifully fluid film, with the ever-moving camera, frequently set on Lean’s eye level (that is, about one metre off the ground), complemented by Bugge Wesseltoft and Audun Sandvik's subtle cello-and-piano music, which communicates both the gravity of the situation, and the innocence and spirit that the main protagonist maintains throughout the film. And when it ends, her smiling face and sometimes endearingly adult-like facial expressions are what sticks with the viewer, rather than the terrible conditions and circumstances that they had to go through.
Produced by Norway's Sant & Usant, 69 Minutes of 86 Days world-premiered at CPH:DOX, where it won a Special Mention in the Nordic DOX:Award section, and will next head to Hot Docs. The UK’s Taskovski Films has the international rights.