There are many touching characters and situations in Never Leave Me (Birakma Beni), the new film by Bosnian writer-director Aida Begic, but these timely tales of traumatized kids have a hard time crystallizing into a full-fledged drama. Returning to the subject of children and war after her 2012 Children of Sarajevo, which got a special jury distinction in Cannes’ Certain Regard, she looks beyond the Balkans to the fate of Syrian orphans and child refugees in Turkey. The film opened the Antalya Film Festival, followed by bows at Pingyao and Dubai.
In a cemetery in Syria, the mother of 14-year-old Isa (Isa Demlakhi) is being buried. His face is immobile, expressionless (much later, we learn that his father died in an accident some time earlier, presumably related to the war). When the last mourners leave, Isa is told to collect his things and vacate the apartment where he and Mom had been living. In short order, he runs away and crosses the border into eastern Turkey, mixed up in crowds of desperate immigrants.
Heartfelt but meandering.
Without explaining exactly how it happens, Isa winds up in a small, homey orphanage for Syrian refugee kids run by warm mother hen Doaa (a reassuring Carole Abboud) and her helpers. The town is Sanliurfa, the ancient multiethnic city of Turks, Kurds and Arabs, but this colorful place plays a disappointingly small role in the story.
In the home, Isa first fights, then bonds with two younger boys, the big-eyed Muataz (Motaz Faez Basha) whose dream is to sing on a TV talent show, and Ahmad (Ahmad Husrom), who misses his soldier-father so much he sees him as a ghost. To earn money, Isa convinces them to skip school and sell tissues on the street, an arduous enterprise, as Begic shows in a well-directed scene that aptly mirrors people’s bored indifference to street urchins.
Isa urgently needs to pay off a mysterious debt to a leering gangster who seems to have popped up out of nowhere. At one point, the villain threatens to take a kidney from each of the boys if they don’t pay up. Scary but unlikely bits like this give the film a mild fairy-tale atmosphere likely to appeal more to young viewers than to adults.
Sometimes the jumpy storytelling simply isn’t clear; for example, who is the boy thrown out of the house by his father because he doesn’t bring home 50 liras? He flits in and out of the trio’s life. A scrappy street girl who kicks the boys out of her working spot on a bridge seems like a promising character, but she too fades away quickly.
Another interwoven story seems aimed at showing the exploitative attitude of the local residents. Little Tukka, another child from the home, has her heart set on buying a pigeon she can’t afford. The smiling pigeon dealer refuses to accept the little money she can raise on repeat visits.
With scant dramatic movement pushing the story forward, one would have liked to see greater psychological depth in the three boys, who are mimed by capable non-pro actors able to pluck the heartstrings with their horrific backstories. Muataz, for instance, reveals that the reason he wants to go on TV is to prove to his mother, who abandoned him, that he is worth loving and taking home. In the final scenes, Doaa takes pity on him and arranges for an audition, but since no one has ever heard him sing, there is a surprise waiting.
Cast: Isa Damlakhi, Ahmad Husrom, Motaz Faez Basha, Carole Abboud, Tuka Na’al
Director-screenwriter: Aida Begic
Producers: Seyyid Muhammed Emin Elhuseyni, Aida Begic, Adis Dapo
Director of photography: Erol Zubcevic
Costume designer: Sanja Dzeba
Music: Igot Camo
Editor: Redzinald Simek
Casting: Timka Grin, Harika Uygur
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights)