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Review: Exodus


- Abbe Hassan’s road movie about a crooked journey through light and darkness revolves around a strong refugee and her weak smuggler

Review: Exodus
Jwan Alqatami and Ashraf Barhom in Exodus

The origins of Abbe Hassan’s debut feature, Exodus [+see also:
interview: Abbe Hassan
film profile
, entered in the Nordic Competition at the 2023 Göteborg Film Festival, can be found in his 2018 short Gold. In this top award winner that partook in the TIFF Kids section of the Toronto International Film Festival, a young girl goes about her everyday life in a bomb shelter in Aleppo in the midst of the Syrian civil war. Is there room for a childhood, even at a time and in a place like this? That’s what the story seems to ask, replying with a reassuring affirmation. Gold is a poetic gem of high karat, showing children as examples of mankind at its strongest and ever abiding.

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Four years later, Hassan delivers the possible main chunk of the story, perhaps with the same main character (at least they share the same name). We first come across Amal in a Turkish harbour, exiting a jam-packed container of Syrian origin and with the eventual destination of Sweden. The year is 2015, the EU has closed its borders and Turkey has become a hub for smugglers, profiting greatly and ruthlessly from these refugees in need – over one million of them at the time. One of the refugees is 12-year-old Amal, and one of the smugglers is Sam; the former is indeed in need, having been separated from her family along the way. In a moment of strength, she grabs hold of him, and in a moment of weakness, he takes her under his wing. Thus begins the titular exodus of an odd couple with many a long and crooked mile to go.

Far more prosaic and pragmatic than its introspective “prologue” film, Exodus is a straightforward, no-nonsense and occasionally quite cheerful effort. A certain kinship with another 12-year-old-meets-a-bad-guy duo, the one in Luc Besson’s Leon, is sometimes noticeable; in fact, Ashraf Barhom looks a bit like Jean Reno’s younger cousin at times, while first-timer Jwan Algatami swiftly slots herself into that category of scene-stealing children (and animals) that it’s so dangerous to work with. Thankfully, the chemistry between the two actors works wonderfully, and as Amal and Sam’s road movie progresses, we are treated to an array of incidents of various tones. One memorable scene takes place inside the derelict Ellinikon airport, outside Athens, which at the time of the story was an actual refugee camp, where our couple turns up just in time for a wedding party, and where Sam gets to showcase his piano-playing chops.

But while even refugees share a modicum of joy from time to time (which the film shows quite beautifully), other moments are dire and dark, and director Hassan does not shy away from those tragedies reported far too often in the news. When we part ways with Amal at a particularly critical and ambiguous point, the notion of children abiding again comes to mind – only this time it’s far more pragmatic than poetic.

Exodus was produced by Sweden’s B-Reel Films and Green Olive Films.

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