Whenever we see them, the seven contested children at the heart of Gorki Glaser-Müller’s taut, highly emotive “Children of the Enemy” have their eyes blurred over, to help protect their identities. It’s a strangely reassuring element in a film that at certain moments may be watched through nail-bitten fingers: If the seven grandkids of Patricio Galvez, the tenacious Chilean-Swedish musician fighting to get them out of Syria, need such protections, it must mean that they are still alive — an assumption anything but guaranteed by their pitiably malnourished state and the precariousness of life in the notorious Al-Hol detention camp where they are being kept.
They are the orphaned daughters and sons of Patricio’s daughter Amanda, who became radicalized and was married off to Michael Skråmo, Sweden’s most notorious ISIS convert. Together with their (then) four children, Michael and Amanda moved to Syria against Patricio’s entreaties, while the war was raging. With both parents killed and ISIS fallen, the children, now seven in number, were placed in detention, their status, like that of thousands of others, in international diplomatic limbo.
It’s easy for governments to pursue their apparent preferred option — doing nothing and hoping the whole problem just goes away — when the children are unwanted. But, enter Patricio: If his grandkids are desperately unfortunate in so many ways, they are at least blessed in having a grandfather rendered doubly determined to save them, by his lingering guilt and grief over his daughter’s fate. A lot of the more introspective moments of a film that largely unfolds like a ticking-clock thriller have to do with his soul-searching over Amanda’s embrace of terrorist extremism, and his own failings as a father. But as this compassionate film suggests, just as children cannot be blamed for the sins of their parents, so, ultimately must we and Patricio — and an often vicious Swedish public, sharing their vitriol over social media — learn how to forgive the father for the sins of his child.
If the pixellation makes it hard to connect individually with the kids — who range in age from eight down to one — Glaser-Müller more than compensates in the close-up warmth of his portrayal of Patricio, during his agonizing month in a hotel near the border as he waits, hopes, makes phone calls, has hope dashed, gives interviews and waits some more. Part of the charm is his endearing veteran-rocker vibe — a mop of shaggy black hair, a penchant for multiple neckchains — which is so at odds with the traditional notion of a grandfather, especially surrounded by the gaudy toys and lollipops and tiny shoes he’s bought in anticipation of the kids’ arrival. But mostly it is just that Glaser-Müller’s evident admiration for Patricio soon becomes our own. They are friends, which is attested to by the vulnerability that Patricio is willing to show: the letters he reads, the poems he shares, the nightmares he relates. And while the director mostly exempts himself from onscreen appearance, when finally a breakthrough occurs, Patricio hurries to embrace him, and they both are crying. It’s a touching moment that breaks a fourth wall that doesn’t really need to exist.
The journey here is inherently dramatic, and it should be said, it would be just as much so without the intrusive, occasionally overbearing musical signposting of Lisa Nordstrom’s score, which too often tells us how to feel when we’re already very much feeling it. But an abundance of earnestness is hardly a fatal flaw in a story as innately complex and moving as this one, especially once it moves beyond its most obvious crescendo, and instead of bowing out in a note of relief and resolution, dares to re-complicate the situation.
“Children of the Enemy” is a taut and necessary addition to a growing corpus of documentaries, including “Sabaya” and “The Return: Life After ISIS,” that put faces onto the too-often faceless processes of post-ISIS international policymaking. But in this final third, it also sets itself apart. Without the pacing lagging (the four-strong editing team keeps the film’s 95 minutes running at a brisk clip without losing granular detail and backstory in the rush), Glaser-Müller introduces new disquieting notes, especially during an unwelcome visit from the children’s grandmother, which emphasize just how far the issues extend.
The rescue mission story is part of one of the concentric circles of pain and trauma that emanate out from the ground zero represented by the Islamic State, but the next generation is going to have to negotiate its own response to its legacy of violence and rupture. One fateful, desperate chapter ends, and then begins a whole new set of different problems and prejudices. But at least it feels like a beginning.