Notes on Displacement: A charged documentary about a refugee family’s gruelling journey to fortress Europe

Still from 'Notes of Displacement'
5 min read
16 December, 2022
Film review: Khaled Jarrar’s second feature gives dignity and identity to the shapeless mass of refugees escaping the most troubled parts of our planet.

How depersonalised is the portrayal of the European migrant crisis offered by Western media?

This is the timely question which takes centre stage in Khaled Jarrar’s sophomore film, titled Notes on Displacement.

The feature was world premiered on 14 November in the Envision competition of this year’s International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (9-22 November), one of the world’s largest gatherings celebrating non-fiction filmmaking.

"Jarrar’s film is full of glimpses, ‘fragments of life,’ and moments of disclosure which not only contribute to reduce the aforementioned distance, but they uncover much about the tragic realities these people escape from"

A graduate of Ramallah’s International Academy of Art and the University of Arizona, Jarrar is a multidisciplinary artist whose body of work explores modern power struggles and their sociocultural impact on ordinary citizens through highly symbolic photographs, videos, film, and performative interventions.

Before embarking on the making of Notes of Displacement, the Jenin-born director helmed Infiltrators, a documentary about the business of Palestinians’ ‘illegal’ crossing, which snagged the FIPRESCI Award for Best Documentary, the Jury Special Award and the Muhr Arab Documentary Special Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2012.

“My grandmother Shafiqa was forced to leave her home in Haifa, her Jasmine tree, her cup of tea on her balcony and her view of the sea. I inherited this pain print of hers through haunted memories both beautiful and painful at the same time. [...] As the director from behind the camera, I was driven to offer images of our own making, outside the never-ending western paparazzi image onslaught of displaced refugees. This film is for us, our values, our knowledge, our experiences,” one can read from his director’s statement.

It is a genuine claim, as Notes on Displacement skilfully manages to reduce the distance between the real experiences of refugees and migrants’ gruelling journeys to Europe and the perception that Western media (and audiences) have of this phenomenon and those involved.

We are all very familiar with the thousands of images depicting overcrowded boats and tent camps, wherein migrants and refugees are often treated as a desperate, shapeless ‘mass.’ Thus, the most obvious choice for Jarrar is to join said ‘mass’ but, in order to give them a voice and an identity, he picks a clear point of view – in this case, that of a family who tries to reach Germany.

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He focuses in particular on some of the family members. The first of these is Nadera Abboud El Hawary. Born in Nazareth in 1936, the woman was forcibly displayed from Palestine at the age of 12, following the events of the Nakba.

In 2014, at the age of 78, she is forced to leave the country she lives in, Syria, once again. We also zoom in on her daughter, Mona, and her son, Mohieddin, both born in the Yarmouk refugee camp.

Mona used to be a teacher in Damascus for 18 years, whilst Mohieddin, who is forced to leave his wife and son behind, worked as a lecturer at the Open University of Damascus for 15 years.

Outside of this family circle, we will also make the acquaintance of a twelve-year-old girl, called Maria, who appears in the first sequence while filming Jarrar with a handy camera and chatting with him.

The family’s nightmarish journey begins in September 2015. Jarrar receives their unsettling videos and voice messages as they cross to the Greek island of Lesbos.

Throughout the picture, we will discover the many moments of hardship they will go through. Particular emphasis – and rightfully so – is placed on the turbulent days lived in Hungary, during which the refugees engage in a protest with the local enforcers, as they are denied most of the basic human rights, including that of eating decent, edible food.

The gruelling journey to safety is complete with natural and man-made peril and loss
The journey to safety is complete with natural and man-made perils and loss [photo credit: Khaled Jarrer]

The title ‘Notes’ proves to be an effective choice. Even though the presence of the family helps Jarrar to keep a clear focus, as viewers we can sense that both the aesthetics and the narrative structure of this documentary pertain – at least in part – to the uncanny realm of video diaries.

Jarrar’s film is full of glimpses, ‘fragments of life,’ and moments of disclosure which not only contribute to reducing the aforementioned distance, but they uncover much about the tragic realities these people escape from.

Halfway through the film, for example, a five-year-old child called Ali tells us he is from Raqqa and that his family fled Syria after the Islamic State forces took over. The kid laughs and seems high-spirited, but he also describes the way Daesh soldiers decapitate their victims with ease as if he really got used to that kind of brutality.

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Technically speaking, Notes on Displacement has no frills. The camera is often shaky and depicts the subjects from very ‘casual’ angles, but such authenticity makes it visually and emotionally powerful.

The melancholic instrumental score, courtesy of Du Yun, gently accompanies the spectators through the last third of the picture, until we find out young Maria’s greatest passion.

Like Ali and many other children who went through the same painful vicissitudes, Maria has perhaps found her own way to exorcise traumas – in her case, through dreams and drawings. Commendably, her final testimony will prompt some very straightforward, intimate questions, which are often neglected by the media coverage we are usually exposed to.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni