'Those Who Feel the Fire Burning': IDFA Review

Those Who Feel the Burning Still - H 2014
Courtesy of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

Those Who Feel the Burning Still - H 2014

Dutch semi-documentary blazes bright with ambition, but struggles to turn heat into light

Morgan Knibbe's metaphysical treatment of migration themes was nominated for the top prize at the Dutch nonfiction extravaganza

Nominally a documentary, Morgan Knibbe's attention-grabbing if overly ambitious debut Those Who Feel the Fire Burning is really a poetic boundary-blurrer that seeks to obliterate the fiction/nonfiction frontier.

Taking obvious cues from Terrence Malick and Gaspar Noe to probe Fortress Europe through the "eyes" of a wandering specter, the picture's form of magical realism generated enough interest, heat and critical enthusiasm when world-premiering at Amsterdam's IDFA — it featured on the three-strong shortlist for the main competition's top prize — to portend further bookings in edgier festivals and those specializing in human-rights themes. Cinema Delicatessen is handling Dutch theatrical distribution, where it may eke out some euros from niche venues.

Knibbe made a splash earlier this year with the 15-minute Shipwreck, which was named best short at Locarno and therefore nominated in the same category at the European Film Awards. The subject of that miniature was the October 2013 tragedy in which a boat carrying 500 Eritrean refugees sank near Italy's far-flung Mediterranean outcrop Lampedusa, resulting in the loss of 360 lives. We hear the testimony of one of the survivors, while hundreds of coffins await transportation back home. Reproduced in its entirety, Shipwreck forms one of the more effective segments of Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, an episodic reverie told from the perspective of one of the shipwreck's victims.

Conjuring the deceased man's POV by impressively soaring use of a Noe-style, swooping "drone" camera, director/screenwriter/cinematographer/cameraman Knibbe eavesdrops on various illegal immigrants' hardscrabble lives in less-than-welcoming Mediterranean-fringe countries such as Greece. Narration spoken by Ali Borzouee gives the unseen protagonist voice — initially bewildered, then more ruminative in the cosmically attuned mode familiar from Malick's more recent efforts. Tilts upward to the sky serve to punctuate the sections, with Xander Nijsten's conventional-style editing a little incongruous in contrast with the wildly imaginative camerawork, not to mention tricky to fit in to Knibbe's free-flowing, pseudo-subjective approach.

The voiceover comes and goes, fading to a near-inaudible whisper at times, at others straying into the realm of portentous verbiage ("Existence and nonexistence are both alien to me. And it's not because I'm courageous that I'm cut off from both"). But while Knibbe's humanistic and consciousness-raising intentions are palpably admirable, there's the sense that he isn't quite able to transcend the gimmicky aspects of his chosen format, which becomes as much of a barrier to understanding and empathy as a fluent conduit.

Some passages are left mystifyingly unsubtitled, most counterproductively a scene in a mosque during the mournful Shi'a commemoration Ashura, where those unfamiliar with the religion's history and rituals will likely be baffled by the congregation's tearful responses to the Imam's lecture.

Elsewhere Knibbe makes the most of what was evidently intimate access and trust, using his relatively brisk running time to provide informative and atmospheric peeks into a string of too-often-overlooked (and ignored) places and experiences. He takes us behind the headlines, for sure, even if further penetration remains largely elusive.

Production company: BALDR Film
Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Morgan Knibbe
Producers: Katja Draaijer, Frank Hoeve
Editor: Xander Nijsten
Composer: Carlos Dialla-Fiore
BALDR Film, Amsterdam