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  • Hooman Razavi

Wake Up On Mars| 2020 Tribeca Film Festival

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

By: Hooman Razavi

A quote from Frederick Wiseman, the famous and great American filmmaker:

“Documentary filmmaking ruins your life, because you earn to be extremely attentive”

Wake Up On Mars directed by Swiss-Albanian Dea Gjinovci has the same effect on the audience and make us to see the depicted reality about the trauma of the Roma family with much more attention and scrutiny. This latest film of Gjinovci would be screened in the competition section of 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, which would be held all online this year.

The film is a documentation of the life of Demiri's family who left Kosovo from persecution and resided in a small city in Sweden, in where appears to be a refugee camp. The six members of the family all suffer from different forms of trauma and stress. The most extreme form is Resignation Syndrome that has made the two young girls in the family to be almost close to the vegetative state. The family which has once deported back to their homeland, is back to Sweden and waiting to hear their settlement decision. While waiting for the decision, the family seeks medical support for the girls and seems they are adopting more and more in the Swedish society, though mostly at its periphery. The film dissects many layers of refugee family life and challenges to discuss further in the following sections.

Themes & Form

The film takes on different styles of filmmaking and mixes genres in this fashion. It has the realistic style of a traditional documentary for the most of its duration, but its opening and final scenes look more surreal than any reality. In a sense, form and content, the two main drivers of cinematic creations are blended to make the viewer understand Demiri’s family tragedy and the unknown Resignation Syndrome that inflicted the two daughters of the family- Djenata and Ibadeta. The music plays a big role in setting the tone, from the piano suspenseful music at the few opening scenes to the string guitar music which made the spacecraft scene more fantastical. Furthermore, in the course of the whole documentary, viewers notice the ease by which the family act the scenes and see a friendly crew and camera. This is mainly because as the director explained in her briefs, she comes from the same Kosovan background and she bonded with them, so they trust the person who is making film out of their lives. Interestingly, some scenes seem to have interview style and the editing selectively narrated how the illness affected this refugee family, but the story, plot development and characters are all made to be real and not contrived. The scene that can be the culmination of this mastery of form, content and point that may ruin audience life and shock them emotionally is when the father brings the residency card to the family. The same camera which showed the crying face of the mother a moment before, shows the joy of the family and how they console the two girls who have been in coma for a long time.

The other dimension that makes viewer stunned is the cinematography, shot selection, camera positions and dialectical editing. The viewer may notice after some time that Swedish wilderness is showing up in many scenes. Is this an accident or intentional? Is this documentary more about the Swedish environment that this family is thrown or the family itself or this mysterious disease or all of them. Gjinovci aptly used all of them, especially scene selection from the nature helps to capture the picturesque aesthetic of natural scene and show the serenity of the nature and its mysterious healing properties. In fact, Rasoul and Farkan spend quite a lot of time outside dreaming, playing and escaping from the routine of their family. Once again, masterfully, the same natural scenes are superimposed with fanatical scenes. This mixing of documentary/real and fantasy/imaginary is exclusive to Wake Up On Mars and stylistic choice of the director to not only make the family to forget their own tragedy but the viewer to be not too overwhelmed with the tragic weight of the story.

The family dynamic is another prominent feature. While we see the two daughters to be permanently incapacitated and in the coma state, both sons even they are on the cusp of getting this syndrome, saved by the family and their own resilient natures. The care and support provided within the family is well presented in many scenes in which members help each other out. Even the boys talk with their hibernating sisters, and the viewer can absorb these authentic, while dramatic elements in which family unity trumps over immigration and cultural integration difficulties. As such, the insightful take could be that, as much as the family was traumatized during the war, they are still opening the door to outsider and not only accept the Swedish doctors but also the camera willingly. The director is also astute to narrate the horror story behind the illness through various means, personal narrations, voice-over, doctor’s pronouncements and children’s stories at which they are off-frame. In brief, as viewers, we could associate with all family members towards the end and understand that every member of the family regardless of the level of trauma need each other and this is important for the survival, recovery and growth of the family.


The film opens the door to so many dark and shady areas. The viewer can easily ask why this family got kicked out of their own country? Why were they rejected from Sweden once and almost not sure if they would be deported again? Why did this disease inflict this family? Could it have been avoidable? Who is to be blamed ? What happens if they go back? Why do the boys dream of going to Mars? Is Sweden their second home and whether the memory of Kosovo would be permanently gone? Gjinovci tale and documentary make us to think and seek answers for these fundamental questions. Ironically, the answers may all be linked to one another as the personal becomes the political and political becomes the personal.

The interpretation of the film’s title and the surreal scene could borrow ideas from Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. In his explanation of nature of hysteria and defence mechanisms, he gave the medical and psychoanalytic communities food for thought, which can be insightful here too. Both Djenata and Ibdata move into coma because of the extreme stress and their home violence and Swedish system’s deportation trauma. The dialogues, facial expression and body language of all characters communicate vividly the horror they all went through. The Freudian displacement and hysterical symptoms are all there and no viewer might have done better if they were going through the same set of tragic incidents. As such, one can argue that the director sees the role of family to be significant even more than the role of the host country. The service to support refugees must be provided but the family is the institution that can keep the chaos away, though Mars is hinted to be a safe mental alternative for both Rasoul and Murkan. Using this lens, one can even view Sweden to be a utopia for the family, as they refer to it as their home now, but not the final utopia -Mars in where all the troubles can be set aside and even nature has a different vibe and colour.

The other key message that this documentary sends is the perilous lives of refugees and the responsibility of the host nation to support them. The Resignation Syndrome as implied in the film strongly causes extreme stress prevalent among the refugee population in Sweden. The filmmaker present both sides of the argument. On the one hand, Swedish politician makes it clear that intakes must be proportional to the population and how much the system can afford; on the other hand, the life of Demiri family and the trauma that every member including the two daughters were suffering paints a different picture, making the case for more compassionate system of approval. Interestingly, as the story unfold, viewers can notice that despite trauma and rejection of their cases once, the family has stayed resilient, members started to learn Swedish and they seem to be adopting Swedish way of life. Hence the argument can be made that this family and many refugees who come to European countries, if given the chance, can adopt and pass traumas as debilitating as Resignation Syndrome and not search for inaccessible utopias in Mars and beyond.

Final Words

Audiences who would luckily get a chance to watch Wake Up On Mars virtually at Tribeca festival this April, in a few days, would watch a very touching and authentic documentary. They can sympathize with the characters, family struggles and joy of seeing both girls out of coma after all these years. They may also question the rules that make refugees settlement in Sweden rather difficult and life of other refugees around the world who may go through a similar journey. Ironically, the outbreak of Corona has made the whole world to look at is deeply held values and what we have already missed because of the restrictions; this film can play the same role on the audience and make us to re-live the experience of this family whose members are not fully settled with the question of where is their real home, Kosovo, Sweden or Mars?


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