[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival’s postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]
It’s fitting that Wake Up on Mars opens in winter. The frozen Swedish landscape is an apt backdrop for this real-life tale of suspended animation: Two teenage sisters, in side-by-side beds, lie in a coma-like condition that’s variously known as uppgivenhetssyndrom, apatisk (apathy) syndrome and resignation syndrome. At the heart of this extreme withdrawal, as far as anyone can tell, are the anxiety and trauma surrounding the threat of deportation.
First-time director Dea Gjinovci is less interested in the history or epidemiology of the mysterious illness than she is in its day-to-day effects on the girls’ family, Romas who emigrated to Sweden to escape persecution in their native Kosovo. A keen observer of the household’s dynamics, the helmer focuses on the youngest child and his dreams of interplanetary travel, in the process adding a self-conscious layer of artifice that works better in retrospect than in the moment. Though the final sequence might leave some viewers wanting, this is a thoughtful film, handsomely made and eye-opening.
Djeneta and Ibadeta Demiri are among the cases Rachel Avid described in her 2017 New Yorker report on resignation syndrome. Over the past 20 or so years, the illness has affected hundreds of children of asylum seekers, predominantly in Sweden and mostly from former Yugoslav and Soviet states. The filmmaker catches the Demiris as they await the verdict on their final appeal amid tightened residency requirements, a sign of the anti-immigrant times. They’re on their second try in Sweden, after being deported once. Two years earlier, eldest child Ibadeta fell sick after opening the envelope that contained their deportation order. Her sister has been unresponsive for almost five years, since witnessing an attack on her youngest brother, Furkan, in Kosovo.
The parents’ tender, assiduous care is moving to witness. Beyond daily physical matters, which include feeding tubes in the girls’ noses, father Muharrem, mother Nurje and their sons, Resul and Furkan, talk to the girls. They put them in wheelchairs to join the family at the dinner table. Gently they work to awaken the hope that would pull the sleeping siblings out of their profound despair — could there be a simpler or more daunting cure? Their optimism is no less real for being a precarious balancing act. “We can’t cry in front of the children,” Nurje says while wiping away her tears. She’s alert to Furkan’s particular sensitivity to the family’s plight, perhaps even to the sense of guilt that he confesses to Gjinovci. On Mars, he tells the director, “they won’t mess with me anymore.”
A doctor and teachers visit, and they talk to the girls too. This communal concern helps to counter the tangle of red tape before the Demiris, a neighborly rebuttal to the government’s toughening stance against refugees. The comfort these women provide is undeniable. Yet there’s also something eerie in the collective acceptance of illness as metaphor, metaphor as illness. Gjinovci smartly uses audio from existing news reports on the syndrome to relate its general recent history. But so many questions persist about it, for medical professionals as well as for anyone else, that this story is necessarily open-ended (though there is a postscript concerning the girls’ condition).
With the spring thaw, Furkan gets busy collecting parts from junkyard cars for an ambitious spaceship-building project that increasingly feels choreographed by the filmmakers. This is the rare nonfiction film whose credits include an art director and a costume designer. Gjinovci’s leap into such obvious poetic symbolism wraps things up on an earnest but unsteady note. A departure from the lean observational approach she employs for most of the film, it works as a conceptual gesture without delivering the intended emotional punch.
But Wake Up on Mars is nonetheless a vivid, compassionate depiction of perseverance in unimaginable circumstances. The phrase “Easy Living” improbably decorates Furkan’s comforter. Life, hardly easy, goes on for the Demiris. If Furkan’s imagination offers a form of escape, he never forgets what he’s escaping. And the dark riddle persists: why adversity pushes some to dream out loud and others to crumple inward in silent defeat.
Production companies: Alva Film, Mélisande Films, RTS, Amok Films
Director: Dea Gjinovci
Screenwriter: Dea Gjinovci, in collaboration with Lucas Minisini
Producers: Sophie Faudel, Dea Gjinovci, Britta Rindelaub, Jasmin Basic
Executive producers: Heidi Fleisher, Kathryn Everett, Bryn Mooser
Director of photography: Maxime Kathari
Art director: Jesse Wallace
Costume designer: Aurelia Martin
Editor: Catherine Birukoff
Music: Gael Kyriakidis, Pavillon (Fabio Poujouly and Jeremy Calame)
Construction coordinator: Armand de Benoist de Gentissart
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
In Albanian and Swedish