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ONE WORLD PRAGUE 2019

Review: Heart of Stone

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- The winner of One World Prague's International Competition is a story about a young Afghani refugee in Paris who goes back to his hometown after eight years

Review: Heart of Stone

The latest documentary by French filmmakers Claire Billet and Olivier JobardHeart of Stone, won the Best Film Award at the recent One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague (see the news), where it also celebrated its world premiere. Following a young Afghani refugee over the course of eight years, the film treads a path from the somewhat undynamic first part, in which the protagonist is growing up while trying to settle in Paris, to the cliché-riddled finale when he rejoins his family in Afghanistan. 

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When he was 12, Ghorban Jafari managed to reach Paris on his own, from his home village near Herat in the northwest of Afghanistan, after a grueling voyage of 8,000 miles. We first meet him at 13 years of age, as he struggles to understand the difficult situation he is in as an illegal immigrant. Changing hotels and foster homes while waiting for the authorities to issue any kind of document that would allow him to go to school frustrates and depresses the boy, and we follow his growing up mostly through the filmed exchanges that he is having with a psychotherapist.

As the years go by, he gradually adapts and discovers his penchant for football and chemistry, and takes an interest in French politics. These segments are somewhat more dynamic than the therapy scenes, as we see Ghorban in more natural environments, and watch him mature and develop into a young Parisian, at least judging by the way he dresses and behaves. But he still has not fully resolved his status as a French citizen, and if he does not manage to do so before he is 18, he could be deported from France. But the filmmakers steer clear of creating suspense from the situation – probably the right choice, ethically speaking, but not such a good call cinematically. The first hour of the film is fairly monotonous, and the emotional investment of the viewer is low, at least until Ghorban describes his relationship with his mother and how he left home without even saying goodbye. 

Once he turns 18 and gets French papers, he manages to get in contact with a friend from his home village on Facebook, and learns that his mother is alive and well, and has four more children. Now, given the circumstances, the time is right for his – probably temporary – return to Afghanistan. 

This is where the film becomes more engaging, but also overloaded with clichés. The young man, now not Afghani any more but not fully French either, returns bearing gifts for the large family, and we watch his sisters try on brightly coloured football boots or marvel at the shape of a perfume bottle, in their modest house with no running water, while he shows his brother how to tie a scarf Paris-style. A goat is slain in his honour, his grandmother starts weeping about how devastated they were when he left, and his grandfather is already looking for a bride. 

While the movie does indeed chart an extraordinary journey, the protagonist himself does not possess much presence or charisma. In the sea of refugee-themed documentaries, this one hardly stands out, but the Prague award will probably help it to reach more festivals, if not a limited distribution in selected territories.

Heart of Stone is a production by Paris-based Quark Productions and is handled internationally by French company Andana Films.

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