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CPH:DOX 2019

Review: Tiny Souls

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- Dina Naser’s film looks at life in a refugee camp in Jordan through the eyes of children

Review: Tiny Souls

In contention for the DOX:Award at CPH:DOX (20-31 March), Tiny Souls [+see also:
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 takes a look at the refugee crisis through the eyes of children. Jordanian director with Palestinian roots Dina Naser’s first feature is a co-production between France, Jordan and Qatar. The film follows the themes of displacement, refugees and family dynamics that she also explored in her short films Shamieh (2011), One Minute (2015) and Sea Wash (2016). Tiny Souls is an extension of her nine-minute documentary project looking at life in the Al Zaatari refugee camp from a kid’s perspective.

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There is an element of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in the way that we see young girl Marwa develop from a petite nine-year-old into a dynamic teenager over the course of four years, starting in 2012. The standout feature of Tiny Souls is the authenticity and frankness in the assessments that Marwa and her siblings make of their own lives, comments made without any political motivation that have a matter-of-fact quality that is often impossible for adults to relay, especially given the charged and frustrating political nature of refugee camps. 

These children are endearing witnesses, albeit with a limited and protected view of what is happening around them. They initially see the camp as a safe haven, a “paradise”, of sorts, after the horrors seen in Syria. The drawback of a child’s perspective is that the almost banal can seem to take on a huge gravitas to a youngster. The kids adapt quickly to life in UN tents, even romanticising it, such as when they describe their authoritarian neighbour as the president. They have a life filled with roleplaying and secrets. As Marwa enters her teenage years, her interest in boys heightens, and there is an interesting gender division. Her brothers don’t go to school and soon find themselves in trouble. But from a quasi idyll and feelings of hope, the days turn into weeks, then months and years, and their frustrations grow, as does their yearning for their former life in Syria.   

While Naser is careful not to include any visuals of adults in the film, she does incorporate herself through narration and by directing questions at the young protagonists. These elements are slightly misjudged. Does the audience need to understand the context better than the children do themselves? Some of the camera work is also a little haphazard, as the director chose to let the children film themselves in the weeks that she had no permission to enter the camp. But the aesthetic is a worthy sacrifice in the attempts to elicit a genuine emotional response from these tiny souls.

The jumps in time have a powerful effect, as we see the children develop and age in front of our eyes almost as if by magic, and yet, despite their physical changes, their situation often seems very much the same, or worse – all the more so when they move outside the camp. There is a sense that their life will be a constant open prison, which makes some of their decision-making more understandable, even when it feels like their actions could amount to self-sabotage. 

Tiny Souls was produced by Madd Moshawash, Jordan Pioneers and Urban Factory. Its international sales are handled by Canada's Syndicado.

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