Hot Docs Review: ‘Reunited’

Family reunification meets Kafkaesque bureaucracy

4 mins read

(Denmark, 78 min.)
Dir. Mira Jargil
Program: The Changing Face of Europe

The opening of Reunited is bleak. Just moments earlier, Rana was rescued from a lifeboat on the Mediterranean sea. In the harshness of a camera light, she tries to hold back her tears, but it is in vain. This is the first time she’s been separated from her two boys, and she’s afraid. Back in Istanbul, Jad and his brother Nidal are fast asleep. Their room, still dark, is lit up by the same camera light. Both their parents were doctors in Aleppo. Mukhles, who was a surgeon, left first. Now the children have neither parent with them.

In her third feature documentary, Danish filmmaker Mira Jargil (Dreaming of a Family, 2013) goes back and forth between three countries and four members of a Syrian family torn apart by the war.

Once in Canada, Mukhles applied for citizenship and family reunification. Rana did the same when she arrived in Denmark. To advisors, colleagues and lawyers, they have to repeat their painful story over and over. In Turkey, the kids exchange facts with classmates: “’They kidnapped one of my relatives.’ ‘One of mine as well.’” But the documentary relays most of its information through Skype calls between the lonely and frustrated family members. Everything is exchanged through screens, from theirs to ours. Stuck between time zones, their lives are on hold. Over a dodgy Wi-Fi, Mukhles explains to his wife how he prefers looking at older pictures of his sons. New pictures remind him how fast they’re growing up in this absence: “I’ve become like a computer with a frozen screen.” Ironically, a glitch in the connection cuts him off seconds after he uttered the somber words.

Jargil jumps in time, condensing a long journey full of hardships and sorrow into a tightly compressed feature doc. Her unvarnished lens captures how their emotions often get the better of them as they are trying for what seems to be the impossible; to be united in a country that isn’t at war. The family is confronted with impatient, unwilling and unfriendly bureaucrats who, not unlike the three wise monkeys, are oblivious to the Kafkaesque loopholes they make disoriented refugees go through. In the hardest moments, Rana often turns her back to the camera. Though the presence of the lens feel misplaced, even intrusive at times, Jargil manages to develop a complicity with the tried and tired mother, allowing the story to find its rhythm. Her silly and joyful shots of the two boys packing for a country they can barely point out on a map (Should they bring both the Play Station and the hookah pipe? Do they really need a fourth pair of sneakers?) are followed by a devastating disappointment at the airport.

Jargil fits sequences of seemingly endless hours of travel between the family’s phone calls and images of their lives in limbo. They show how the parents peg away between the administrative impediments at the embassy, the mandatory Danish language classes and low-end jobs while their kids are told to wait. How long can this go on? The answer, for this family, is two and a half years. The epilogue explains it is much longer today.

Reunited screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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