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Review: Zaatari Djinn (2016)

Director: Catherine van Campen | 90 minutes |

In the north of Jordan, near the Syrian border, is the Zaatari refugee camp. Since its establishment in the summer of 2011, the camp has grown enormously. 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. filmmaker Catherine van Campen (1970) turned 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” is named after a mysterious girl who watches her world from the roof of a container. On the first day of shooting, this Nour caught the attention of the crew, when she in turn was filming the filmmakers with her telephone. A Djinn is a supernaturally invisible being, which can have both good and evil qualities. Thanks to her curiosity and presence, Nour has become the muse of the filmmakers.

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 meet is Fatma, born in Damascus, who is enjoying adolescence, but who is also very lonely. Her best – and most likely only – friend, a rooster, has been slaughtered by her father, and she’s thrilled when she gets a new animal lover.

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

In Zaatari, the Syrian Maryam is given opportunities to develop that she had not dreamed of in her home country. She tries to learn as much as possible outside her school. She discovers she loves theater and fully enjoys her role in a Shakespearean play. The fact that her parents are not happy with that, naturally creates friction.

The most memorable thing about “Zaatari Djinn” is the visual style. Van Campen opted for lots of close-ups and serene, abstract images, so that the children’s stories actually disappear into the background. There is not always a clear beginning and end to a scene, so that sometimes you fall into 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 reinforced. That is not very problematic, but 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 gaze of the filmmaker. A little more information during the film – and not after it (by reading the lyrics on the film’s website, for example), would have been welcome.

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