When “Wake Up on Mars” director Dea Gjinovci read a 2017 New Yorker article about a pair of teenage refugees suffering from a mysterious coma-like condition, the young director knew she had to make contact.
Though the article had already prompted a significant share of media interest from more established institutions, Gjinovci intuited different shades in the story of the Demiri family and their girls Ibadeta and Djeneta.
“I saw that they were from Kosovo, where my father is from too,” she explains. “I knew their cultural background, I knew what happened during the war, and I just wanted to reach out.”
Gjinovci had explored similar subjects with her award-wining short “Sans le Kosovo,” which the filmmaker sent to one of the doctors from the article, and which helped pave the way for Gjinovci to visit the family in July 2017. Upon arriving in Sweden, things fell into the place quick enough.
“It was really this instant connection,” Gjinovci explains. ”I think because of the language barrier they had with Swedish, it was hard for them to completely open up even with the doctors or with other people there. For them to be able to speak Albanian with me opened up so much. We could really build a trusting relationship from the beginning.”
Gjinovci had flown to Sweden thinking about the plight of the two young girls caught in this coma-like state, and of the family parents, dealing with this mysterious ailment on one hand and an uncertain immigration status on the other, intending to develop their into story into a short film, but her conception and vision for the project changed when she got to know the family’s youngest son, Furkan.
“Meeting Furkan was the moment where I felt like [I could take it further],” she says. “He represented the sadness and the trauma that his sisters and family had lived, because he internalized so much of it. But at the same time, he represented the hope for them to settle in Sweden, for his sisters to wake up. He was able to dream and be a child – and not just have to worry all the time about everything that was going on.”
Because the filmmaker didn’t want to focus her feature debut on the girls’ ambiguous condition or the family’s tenuous legal status – to make the film an outright social exposé or medical investigation, in short — centering on the young boy, who spends his days building a rocket ship in order to escape the complications of this world and start anew on Mars offered Gjinovci an unconventional avenue to explore.
“I wanted to focus on the metaphorical elements of this illness,” Gjinovci adds. “I didn’t want this film to just be a fly on the wall documentary. I thought the metaphorical elements would be more interesting, they would offer more depth… I wanted to be at the same level as a child’s point of view, in a sense, in order to evoke this childhood syndrome.”
The oneiric interludes, following the boy as he puts together a vessel from the materials nearby, also reflected Gjinovci’s formal interests. “I want to be in this in-between space with documentary, using what we called ‘artisanal science-fiction’ — trying to build a documentary story while using fictionalized elements that can be used to better tell the story or add more depth,” she says.
“For me, it’s very important to question the form of documentaries, to do things that don’t fall into a certain format. Besides, documentaries are just films, so there shouldn’t be any barrier in how you want to make them.”
Of course, her decision to hew to that artistic line made this debut feature that much harder to pull off. “It was a nightmare,” she laughs. “It was a huge investment to build on this narrative of having a space ship in the film.”
“Obviously, you have to convince funders and producers, and then you need a grip and gaffer and a techno crane – these are elements that don’t fall in line with a documentary film. It was definitely risky — it would have been much simpler if I had just focused on the medical aspect, or just made an observational film about the family — and people are very much risk averse.”
Gjinovci and her team plunged ahead, launching production without full funding and perhaps furthering that risk. The breakthrough arrived via a development grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund and pitching prize from the Visions du Réel festival, both of which rather improbably landed the same weekend.
“This was really the moment where it felt like we could breath again,” says Gjinovci. “The Sundance grant opened up the U.S. in terms of funding, which was really helpful, because we wanted this film to work in the U.S. and not only in Europe.”
With her film selected by both Visions du Réel and Tribeca, Gjinovci is once again plunged toward an uncertain future as she launches unconventional festival tour at this unusual moment. “We still don’t know what’s going to happen going forward,” says the filmmaker. “We’re trying to make the best of it. We want to build a presence for the film and make ourselves visible.”
Another risk, of course. And thus far, they’ve tended to pay off.