Copenhagen documentary film festival CPH:DOX sees the world premiere of “Children of the Enemy,” which captures the journey of a Swedish-Chilean man to a Syrian prison camp to rescue his grandchildren, after their parents – members of the Islamic State terrorist group – are killed. Director Gorki Glaser-Müller spoke to Variety about the film, and his next projects, a Chilean thriller centering on questionable adoptions, and an interactive virtual reality experience with the American dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith.
Amanda, the daughter of bohemian musician Patricio Galvez, married a Swedish Muslim convert, and the two of them travelled with their children in 2014 to join ISIS in Syria to fight for the Caliphate. Both parents were killed in 2019, and their seven children were transferred to the Kurdish-run al-Hol prison camp in north-east Syria. There are up to 22,000 foreign children of at least 60 nationalities in Syrian camps, according to UNICEF, but Sweden, like many European countries, refuses to repatriate the children of citizens who were ISIS fighters.
Galvez – shattered by grief – refused to accept the grim fate of his grandchildren, and decided to travel to Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, from where he hoped to enter Syria, and save the children. He invited Glaser-Müller to accompany him on this perilous mission.
Galvez’s valiant efforts received widespread coverage in the Western media, but Glaser-Müller “saw the possibility to tell the story from the inside,” he tells Variety. He and Galvez were friends, but not close, and the director saw his role as recording Galvez’s journey, rather than participating in his efforts, and to question Galvez about what he was doing, and why. Glaser-Müller was reluctant to intervene in case he jeopardized any chance to get the children out of Syria, he says. “It was a balance between being a filmmaker and a friend,” he says. However, there came a “tipping point” in the unfolding events, he says, where he became “more emotionally engaged.”
While on the outside, Galvez remained cool and well-organized in his dealings with officials and journalists, Glaser-Müller’s access enabled him to show what was happening behind closed doors. “On the inside, he was imploding,” he says. “He was worn out.”
Glaser-Müller was – to a certain extent – a fish out of water on this “odyssey,” as he calls it in the film. First, his background is in fiction filmmaking, not documentaries, and he traveled to Iraq and Syria without a crew. Second, he had no in-depth knowledge of the situation in Iraq and Syria. “To be honest, I was terrified of going there,” he says. “I feared for my life.” Although ISIS had lost control of its Caliphate, it was still active in the area. Although no more experienced for such a mission, Galvez exhibited a calm conviction that going there was the right thing to do. However, no one expected him to succeed.
Although as a fiction director Glaser-Müller had filmed scenes where it was “a matter of life and death, now it was like that for real,” he says. “It was a wake-up call for me that there was no room for mistakes.” As a director of drama “you have control of things,” he says, but when shooting this film he was not in control of anything, and utterly unsure of the outcome.
The task was made even more difficult as few of the people in positions of authority in Iraq and Syria wanted to be filmed, and he was afraid of having his cameras confiscated.
Early financial support for the film, which is produced by Kristofer Henell and Erika Malmgren at Cinenic Film, came from Swedish regional funding body Film I Väst, the Swedish Film Institute, and the Malik Bendjelloul Memorial Foundation, named after the director of Oscar winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Through the foundation, Glaser-Müller was able to draw on the know-how of such experienced documentary filmmakers as John Battsek (Oscar winning “One Day in September”), who is an executive producer on Glaser-Müller’s film, and Simon Chinn (Oscar winners “Man on Wire” and “Searching for Sugar Man”). World sales on the film are being handled by Philippa Kowarsky’s Cinephil.
Having completed “Children of the Enemy,” Glaser-Müller – who was born in Chile and came to Sweden when he was 13 – has now returned to an earlier drama project, with a first draft of the script written. The project was previously presented at the Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum in San Sebastian.
It is a political thriller, tentatively titled “The Return,” centering on a Swedish person who was born in Chile and adopted as a child, who tries to find out why he was put up for adoption. It is based on a true story.
The situation, he explains, was complicated by the fact that Chileans were living under a dictatorship at the time. The children’s mothers were “forced or lured into adopting their children,” he says, describing it as a form of “human trafficking.” It’s about identity and “how the shadows from the past, if you don’t deal with them, will crawl back,” he says.
Glaser-Müller is also working on an interactive virtual reality experience, “Café Glaser-Müller,” with the American dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith, who was previously the subject of a documentary by Elvira Lind. The title of the project is a homage to “Café Müller,” originally presented by German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch in 1978.
He has already secured funding from Kulturbryggan for the VR experience, which will be recorded this summer in Europe. It will utilize volumetric capture – a process in which the artist records the performer from all angles and then turns them into a hologram.
Again the focus of the piece is Chile’s dictatorship. “I will invite the audience, in a highly artistic way, through dance, to have an encounter with what happened in Chile during a very dark period, and what the fascists did to people.”
He adds: “They will see one dancer’s fight for freedom – in an artistic way – and you as a person that are in this virtual reality with the dancer can help that person to gain that freedom through activity. This is not a game, but it’s not a film either. It’s an interactive short dance piece. It’s storytelling, but in another way.”
His aim is to have it finished in time for next year’s CPH:DOX.