'69 Minutes of 86 Days': Film Review | Dubai 2017

Courtesy of the Dubai International Film Festival
A standout.

Egil Haaskjold Larsen’s prize-winning doc focuses on a three-year-old Syrian girl making her way to Sweden with her immigrant family.

In the storm of films, fictional and nonfictional, exploring the current immigrant crisis in Europe, Egil Haaskjold Larsen's documentary 69 Minutes of 86 Days (69 minutter av 86 dager) is honestly a standout. It's one of the works that most strongly brings home the physical and mental hardships of immigration — even if Larsen doesn't show the perilous sea voyage that preceded the first shot. The film has already won prizes at Hot Docs, Nordic, Sheffield and CPX:DOX, and the festival train shows no sign of slowing down.

In his feature directing debut, Norwegian cinematographer Larsen makes two winning choices. The first is to make a three-year-old girl the protagonist; her energetic charisma offers a whole new perspective on the dangerous journey a Syrian family faces as they make their way from the uncertain shores of Greece to a cold haven in Sweden.

The second is his choice of stylistic rigor: no voiceovers, no interviews and virtually no dialogue. What need for commentary, when we know the story by heart? The camera glides along with the crowd, rarely stopping to examine any details as it quickly turns and pans, as though it was another frightened refugee anxious not to be left behind. In most of the shots, the camera is kept low, at the eye level of a small child, as little Lean Kanjo gradually takes center stage.

Early scenes eloquently introduce the flight of the refugees. Like the bread crumbs left behind by Hansel and Gretel to find their way back through the forest (though these travelers will never retrace their footsteps), a trail of abandoned life jackets, clothes and backpacks dot a cold, nighttime beach. A long, extended tracking shot plows on through the undergrowth to grating musical notes until it finds the source of these discarded objects: a group of refugees, mostly Syrians, on their way to Europe.

Encouragingly, they are met by local volunteers who distribute water, dry clothes and blankets, helping them to reach a makeshift camp of small tents near an island port. There they are smoothly boarded onto a commercial ferry boat and taken to mainland Greece, where their journey takes on less friendly tones as they cross borders into Macedonia, Hungary and Germany. No titles give locations (though there are language clues, signs, license plates). One imagines the refugees have as vague an idea as the audience as to where they are, herded through checkpoints and loaded onto buses bound north.

The bright spot in this nightmare is little Lean. Oblivious to the difficulties of the trip, she never loses her smile or good humor as she is passed from the arms of her young parents to her uncle and other members of her extended family. She's a Shirley Temple of a child who engages with everything and everyone around her — playing with a handful of rocks, sharing a lollipop with her infant sister, talking her head off to her sleepy uncle as he dozes on a bus.

Several times she seems on the verge of getting lost; then a familiar hand reaches down to her. Despite moments of suspense and all the hardships the family faces in the film's 70-minute running time, there is a rainbow waiting for them in the emotional finale. Unusual for the genre, it offers hope for a brighter future as Lean grows up, ending the story on a welcome upbeat note.

The non-indulgent editing wastes no time, speeding up as the conclusion approaches. Very subtly underlining the journey is the fine cello and piano score by Bugge Wesseltoft and Audun Sandvik.

Production company: Sant & Usant
Director, screenwriter, director of photography: Egil Haaskjold Larsen
Producer: Tone Grottejord-Glenne
Music: Bugge Wesseltoft, Audun Sandvik
Editors: Egil Haaskjold Larsen, Victor Kossakovsky
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights)
Sales: Taskovski Films


70 minutes