It’s hard to disregard the “easy living” motif that covers the 10-year-old Furkan Demiri’s bed sheets in Dea Gjinovci’s “Wake Up on Mars.” The heartbreaking irony of the phrase stings, as there is nothing easy about this imaginative child’s life, brought to a halt amid endless immigration machinations in a frosty Swedish town. But citizenship status isn’t the only painful impediment that puts Furkan’s six-member, asylum-seeking Kosavan family in uncertainty.
Gjinovci’s compassionate yet slightly muddled documentary debut lays bare that two of Furkan’s siblings, Ibadeta and Djeneta, have been living in a coma-esque vegetative state for years, after falling ill with a mysterious disease called “the resignation syndrome,” a sleep-like shutdown of the body that apparently affects nearly 200 shell-shocked immigrant children living with fears of deportation each year.
While the tight-knit, caring Demiri family, led by loving parents Muharrem and Nurje, struggles with putting their earthbound lives in order and bringing their immigration saga to a hopeful close, Furkan has plans of his own: travel to Mars, where he believes his sisters have been transported and bring them back home. It doesn’t take a lot of metaphoric police work to grasp that fantasizing about a childlike outer-space adventure is Furkan’s version of resignation; to escape the crippling trauma at home until a semblance of safety and normalcy arrives.
Throughout “Wake Up on Mars,” which Gjinovci was inspired to make upon reading Rachel Aviv’s 2017 New Yorker article, “The Trauma of Facing Deportation,” she tries to merge these two accounts — Furkan’s efforts around his whimsical quest versus the grounded suffering at home — to varying degrees of success. Her risky experiment is most touching when the filmmaker stays close to the Demiris’ daily routine, through empathetic doctors and teachers visiting their home, vital meetings with immigration officers and outdoor family walks taken on the snow-covered, picturesque roads of their neighborhood, cinematographer Maxime Kathari films with stunning serenity.
The director is unfortunately less successful with Furkan’s quirky coming-of-age tale; not so much in portraying it, but justifying its dramatic necessity when the two sisters’ lives continue to hang in the balance; the narrative priority that the audience invests in. While the young Furkan’s bright, grayish blue eyes and astonishingly camera-friendly facial gestures are Gjinovci’s cinematic assets, the director can’t seem to determine how to best weave his point of view into the film. In that, the segments with Furkan increasingly assume a manipulative, far-fetched dimension and feel like departures from the chief sentiments that “Wake Up on Mars” should be aiming at; especially when the make-believe spaceship the 10-year-old builds with the pieces he collects from a junkyard ends up looking like the work of on-set craftspeople with professional resources.
Still, there is a lot of delicately rendered sympathy here that makes “Wake Up on Mars” a more-than-worthwhile watch, expanding upon the subject of last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary short “Life Overtakes Me,” also about the rising phenomenon of resignation syndrome in refugee families. When we’re in the Demiri home, Gjinovci never lets the viewer forget the backdrop of the government’s stricter stance for refugees in an unsympathetic world and the nature of the disease the sisters continue to battle, explained through old audio recordings of news reports that the filmmaker sporadically uses. That context only deepens when we get a sense of the full story — the family had already been deported once two years ago, a decision that resulted in Ibadeta’s illness after her sister fell ill three years prior, on the heels of witnessing a tragic incident in Kosovo.
Between episodes of communal support, hidden parental tears and the touching care of a family that tries to involve Ibadeta and Djeneta in everything including dinners and conversations, you wonder why the entirety of the film wasn’t centered on those domestic rhythms that swing between harmony and pathos. Even when the story comes to a happy and rewarding finish on all accounts — the sisters eventually did awaken, the end credits reveal — audiences may feel slightly shortchanged on the film’s concluding emotional impact.