‘Born in Syria’ (‘Nacido en Siria’): Film Review

Hernan Zin’s wrenching documentary ‘Born in Syria,’ which traces the journeys of seven child refugees being moved across Europe in search of a new life, is generating healthy offshore sales.

If the privileged world owes a debt to the war-torn citizens of elsewhere, as many believe it does, then Born in Syria brings ample evidence to the table. Like his last effort, Born in Gaza, Spaniard Hernan Zin’s latest focuses on the children, this time refugees undertaking traumatic journeys across Europe in search of a new life, leaving behind them broken families and a broken nation.

Multiple documentary perspectives on Syria’s civil war have built up over the last few years, perhaps most notably with Feras Fayyad’s recent Sundance award winner, Last Men in Aleppo. But the focus here is less on the war, more on the aftermath. Inevitably it’s a potently soul-stirring, guilt-inducing experience which deserves to be seen by as many people as possible — but particularly, perhaps, by those privileged children old enough now to reflect upon it, and later to act.

The Bottom Line

A timely and potent call to the conscience.

It will be hard, on the other hand, for the children who are the film’s subjects to forgive. Born in Syria opens with the nighttime arrival of a dinghy containing refugees as it lands at a Greek island: a small girl cries, an elderly man collapses, another child blood-curdlingly cries, “I want to see my father!” This is all in the first three minutes.

From there, the film will trace the difficult journeys across Europe of seven children, moved around by authorities who are sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes simply seeking to get rid of a problem. Among these “problems” are 8-year-old Hamude, whose parents have been killed, and who notes that in Hungary the refugees stayed in a zoo; 10-year-old Kais, with bad burns, whose uncle doesn’t want to tell him his father is dead; 12-year-old Arasuli, whose family has paid several thousand dollars to get them out of Syria only for them to arrive at a refugee camp whose doors are closed to them; and 13-year-old Marwan, who says, “I thought the worst would be the sea-crossing, but having nowhere to go is worse.”

It is through children, of course, that the injustice and absurdity of war are seen and felt in clearest relief — a fact categorically demonstrated by the media attention given to the tragic death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up in Turkey in September 2015. Zin’s focus on the very young — though time is also given to the occasional reflection by their elders — could have ended up being sentimental, but these children, though baffled and numbed by what is happening to them and aware that something has gone very, very wrong, are troublingly matter-of-fact in their explanations.

It’s striking and upsetting to see how quickly the younger among them have normalized their horrors. But not always. Jihan, a slightly older 15, and her mother both weep with impotence as they talk on their cellphones: “I have run out of tears to cry,” says Jihan’s mother.

There is no explanatory voiceover, but TV and radio footage is used as an implicit commentary, with a clear distinction being made between the political goodies (principally Angela Merkel in Germany) and the baddies (Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister: “Where is your heart, Hungary?” reads one protest banner). Assad and Daesh, by contrast, are barely mentioned. But it’s not all bad news: The film also shows that there are good people trying to do their anonymous best by the refugees, often in the face of absurd bureaucracy.

Born in Syria has raised some debate among its viewers about the sometimes striking beauty of its visuals — the way its 4K images, stunning aerial shots and regular use of slow motion (somewhat inexplicably, there’s even a slow motion seagull) raise an esthetic barrier between the viewer and its subjects. Such tactics risk reducing the immediacy of the experience, leaving the project stranded somewhere between cinema and documentary without fully being either. The same might be said of Gabriel Yared’s sonorously lush, almost omnipresent score and an occasional sense of over-manipulation for narrative effect, in particular an early sequence showing a man being arrested as he tries to break into Hungary.

But this does not describe the whole of Born in Syria. Although the slow motion does underline things heavy-handedly and too often, there’s also plenty of urgent, hand-held documentary about the film to pull us closely in to these unfortunate people’s lives. And if we see Zin’s partial focus on the aesthetic as a strategy to get his film into as many cinemas as possible, it seems to have worked, as it has sold to 22 territories so far.

Production company: La Claqueta, Contramedia
Cast: Hamude, Jihan, Gaseem, Mohammed, Marwan, Arasuli, Kais
Director: Hernan Zin
Screenwriters: Hernan Zin, Jose Ortuno
Producer: Olmo Figueredo Gonzalez-Quevedo
Executive producers: Hernan Zin, Monica Hellstrom
Director of photography: Hernan Zin
Editors: Jose M.G. Moyano, DArio Garcia Garcia, Fatima de los Santos
Composer: Gabriel Yared, Jean-Pierre Ensuque
Casting director:
Sales: Java Films

87 minutes