- The latest feature film by Kurdish-Swiss director Mano Khalil depicts the absurdity of war through the eyes of a child
A regular at Solothurn Film Days where he presented his previous three films (Hafis & Mara [+see also:
film profile] (2018), The Swallow [+see also:
film profile] (2016) and The Beekeeper (2013), which won the prestigious Prix de Soleure), Kurdish-Swiss director Mano Khalil is making his return to the festival to present Neighbours in a world premiere. And once again, he is turning his attention towards his native land and the conflict exhausting it, this time through the gaze of a carefree child.
Both simple and cruel, Neighbours’ story homes in on a village on the Turkish-Syrian border at the beginning of the 1980s. As if in a microcosm, preserved by the cruelty and intransigence of an increasingly radicalised society, the inhabitants live together peacefully, viewing their differences as indispensable pieces of a puzzle in which they are all harmoniously represented. There’s no sentimentality; just the regular unfolding of their naturally multi-faceted daily lives, which no-one feels the need to call into question.
This village is home to the film’s protagonist Sero (played by the impressive Serhed Khalil), a six-year-old Kurdish child whom we follow through his first year of school, a decisive time which changes his life forever. Not only does his mother die from a gunshot wound, the bullet fired “unintentionally” by a soldier patrolling the country’s border, he also finds his entire tiny world revolutionised by the radical teachings (or rather indoctrination) meted out by a new teacher who has been sent from Damascus to take up the reins of the Arab school attended by Sero. The absurd brand of nationalism adhered to by his teacher clashes with the peaceful coexistence of the town’s inhabitants (which transcends religion and roots) and shatters the small certainties enjoyed by Sero and his classmates.
The fact that the film encourages us to observe this complex reality through the eyes of a child means that the latter retains a veil of magic which prevents sadness from taking over, as if the new teacher’s cruelty and pragmatism couldn’t quite get past the defences of childhood, strong from illusions and simple desires (such as Sero’s dream to one day be able to watch cartoons on TV). The moment where the pupils are asked by their teacher how they would fight the Jews and where they respond with an unexpected and spontaneous: “by playing cops and robbers”, is nigh-on Felliniesque in the extent to which the magic of childhood finds itself mixed, not without humour, with the cruelty of the present. The same goes for the scene where they’re discussing terms endlessly repeated by their teacher, “Zionism” and “imperialism”, and they describe them as fantastical creatures without having the faintest idea of what they mean. The abusive masculinity displayed by Sero’s uncle is likewise seen through the filter of the child’s innocent sensitivity, the latter springing to his aunt’s defence to protect her from his uncle’s brutality. It’s a thoroughly cathartic moment which shines a light on the heavily constructed nature of this virile and patriarchal masculinity, which, like his teacher’s indoctrination, hasn’t yet found a way to permeate the boy.
In Khalil’s “huis clos”, the war represents a potential for danger, but it’s a nigh-on invisible danger, like a monster with an unknown face which is primed and ready to attack. Beyond the film’s horrific images, which the viewer can well imagine, it is this silence, this palpable invisibility and its potential to deprive Sero of his carefree nature, which leaves a frightening mark and ultimately endows the film with genuine depth.
(Translated from Italian)
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