Review: Zaatari Djinn (2016)

Zaatari Djinn (2016)

Directed by: Catherine van Campen | 90 minutes | documentary

The Zaatari refugee camp is located in northern Jordan, near the Syrian border. Since its inception in the summer of 2011, the camp has grown tremendously. From a tent camp it has now become a city, with street names, house numbers, shops, schools, hospitals and a football field. Zaatari is home to about 80,000 people. Many of them are children. Dutch filmmaker Catherine van Campen (1970) focused the lens on a select, but diverse group of children, who had to build a new life in Zaatari. She does this in a stylized, poetic way.

‘Zaatari Djinn’ owes its name to a mysterious girl who watches her world from the roof of a container. On the first day of shooting, this Nour caught the eye of the film crew, when she in turn was filming the filmmakers with her phone. A Djinn is a supernaturally invisible being, who can have both good and evil qualities. Nour has become the muse of the filmmakers thanks to her curiosity and presence.

The four children that Van Campen followed for three years are very different. Not only in terms of age, but also in terms of background and future prospects. The first girl we get to know is Damascus-born Fatma, who is enjoying puberty, but who is also very lonely. Her best – and probably only – friend, a rooster, has been slaughtered by her father, and she’s overjoyed when she gets a new animal friend.

The second child we meet is Ferras, who sells the sweets (‘raga’) made by his father in the camp. Ferras doesn’t get along with his mother’s second wife. Although we do not really get to know the boy, it is clear that his life is at odds with that of the two years younger Hammoudi, whom we see for the first time when he is allowed to pick a bicycle with his mother. Hammoudi’s family has always been wealthy, and in Zaatari they also managed to maintain their level of prosperity for a long time. But as ‘Zaatari Djinn’ progresses, you see that Hammoudi’s parents also struggle to make ends meet.

The Syrian Maryam gets opportunities in Zaatari to develop that she had not dreamed of in her homeland. Outside of school she tries to learn as much as possible. She discovers that she loves the theater and thoroughly enjoys her role in a Shakespeare play. The fact that her parents are not happy about this naturally creates friction.

The most memorable thing about ‘Zaatari Djinn’ is the visual style. Van Campen opted for many close-ups and serene, abstract images, so that the children’s stories actually disappear into the background. There isn’t always a clear beginning and end to a scene, so sometimes you end up in the middle of a dialogue. This creates a distance between the children and the audience, which is not lifted by the beautiful visual language, but rather reinforced. That is not very problematic, but it is a bit of a shame, because the subject is so original: what does the daily life of a child in a refugee camp look like? It also gives the viewer the impression that the images are colored by the filmmaker’s gaze. Just a little more information during the film – and not after (by reading the texts on the film’s website, for example) would have been welcome.

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