In her feature documentary, “Wake Up on Mars,” Swiss-Albanian filmmaker Dea Gjinovci examines the plight of a Kosovar refugee family in Sweden whose two daughters, afflicted by resignation syndrome, lie in a catatonic state.
The dissociative syndrome appears to mainly affect children and adolescents as a response to the trauma of forced migration, often due to life-threatening circumstances, and who find themselves in a state of uncertainty regarding their status in a new country.
Gjinovci first heard of resignation syndrome from a 2017 article in The New Yorker that focused on several refugee families in Sweden with children suffering from the malady. Curious and eager to learn more, she managed to contact one of the families portrayed in the article. “My parents are also from the Balkans, they’re from Kosovo and Albania, so I knew I could speak the same language as them.”
When she traveled to Sweden to meet the family, which also includes two sons, “it just clicked,” Gjinovci says. “It was a point in their lives when they really needed to talk to someone who knew about their culture, who knew their language, who could help them as well as decipher what was going on with their asylum process. They were very open about sharing their story with me.”
Gjinovci’s film not only examines the family’s struggles in dealing with the daughters’ condition as they seek asylum, but also focuses on their youngest son, Furkhan, his keen interest in space travel and dreams of building a spaceship (which, with the help of the filmmaker, he manages to do).
Gjinovci spent a year and half shooting the documentary during several trips to Sweden and another year with editing and post-production. The film, which is being sold internationally by Paris-based Cat&Docs, was selected for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Switzerland’s Visions du Réel, Italy’s Biografilm Festival, where it won a special mention in the New Talents category, and the Underhill Fest in Montenegro.
In making the film, Gjinovci formed a deep personal relationship with the family that remains strong. “When you come into these families who are quite vulnerable, that are so reliant on an immigration system that they don’t really understand, and they’re always waiting for an answer, they’re always waiting for something, you have to be very loyal and thorough and straight with yourself as well.”
Gjinovci says it was vital to remain consistent and transparent and stresses that their common language played a major role in the decision to make the film.
“When I told them I was coming to shoot, that I was going to be back in October or January, I had to be back – that was very important.”
She added, “It was a lot of talking. I don’t think I would have done this film if I couldn’t speak Albanian with them. I think that really allowed me to go beyond the role of a filmmaker to someone you know who could just listen outside of just filming and really making sure that they trusted me and trusted my understanding of their situation. … It’s very much about building a relationship that goes beyond just a character and a filmmaker to create this kind of intimacy.”
For Gjinovci, who grew up in Switzerland, “Wake Up on Mars” marks a second work that centers on a Kosovar refugee experience. In her award-winning 2017 short “Sans le Kosovo,” she traces the path taken by her own father when he left Kosovo in the 1970s and made his way to Switzerland, during which he spent several years in refugee camps in Italy, and visits his native village in what was once Yugoslavia.
“Obviously the history of Kosovo was so brutal. I grew up with this image of Kosovo on the news and what happened to my own family, members of my father’s family were killed during the war, the trauma of leaving family behind — all of this is part of my own history and part of the convoluted history of the Balkans as well.”
Gjinovci added, “I’ve always been very interested in and impacted in my own personal story by exile and wanting to belong in a new society and how you can be adopted or rejected. The syndrome of resignation is sort of an extreme expression of rejection.”
In addition to upcoming festivals, Gjinovci is also working with NGOs and associations in France, Switzerland and the U.S. to organize community screenings aimed at creating awareness and dialogue about the plight of refugee children and resignation syndrome.
Gjinovci is based in Geneva and Paris, where she runs Amok Films with producing partner Antoine Goldet. She is currently developing another project with a Swiss production company about refugee children and after that hopes to move into fiction.
Via Amok Films, Gjinovci is also producing two upcoming documentaries, “In the Heat of the Cold Years,” directed by Darius Kaufmann and Eytan Jan, about the golden decade of Cuban cinema that spanned 1959 and 1969, and a project directed by Goldet set in the West Bank.