Tiny Souls


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Tiny Souls
"The film is given an added poignancy because it has a specific personal connection to Naser." | Photo: Courtesy of Doc/Fest

Last month, the UN revealed that almost five million children have been born in Syria since the conflict began there 10 years ago and - just since December 1 last year - 575,000 kids have been displaced, and the list of grim statistics goes on. There have previously been films that have included a focus on youngsters from the country - notably Evgeny Afineevsky's Cries From Syria and  Waad al-Khateab's and Edward Watts' For Sama and now Dina Naser, in her first film, not only includes their viewpoint but hands them a camera so that they can capture the way they feel for themselves.

The result is this intimate documentary, which zeroes in on three siblings, Marwa, 11, her younger sister Ayah, nine, and their five-year-old brother Mahmoud and their family. We meet them in 2012, when they are living in Jordan's enormous Za'atari refugee camp - now the fourth largest 'city' in the country - having fled the Daraa area of Syria with their mum and older brother, and Naser then follows them over a period of years. The film is given an added poignancy because it has a specific personal connection to Naser, whose dad became a refugee himself when he was just 11. Although she keeps her focus firmly on the family, her occasional observations, such as her dad's assertion that "there's no war in a refugee camp and no peace either... a need for everything and a desire for nothing", dovetail with what we can see of the children's experience as their expectation of living in the camp for weeks stretch on into months and years.

The film is buoyed along by the children's energy, captured doing everything from bickering to playing and helping their mum in the day-to-day slog of acquiring things like water. Giving them a camera, leads to everyday asides that fully immerse us into their lives. We watch as they grow older and Marwa adopts a hijab, while her sister Ayah prefers hats. Mahmoud, meanwhile, graduates from clowning about for the camera to, as he grows older, making sure he's got his best togs on for a wedding. Soon, it seems interest in boys will also come for Marwa although the precariousness of their lives is never far away.

In addition to watching the children grow and mature, Naser also captures the turn of the seasons, showing the camp caught in dust storms or the tents swimming in water after heavy rain. "Is this acceptable?" one of the children asks Naser's camera as she lifts a sodden mattress up to show the water beneath. I think we all know the answer to that.

Naser also gives a sense of the bigger picture - showing the enormous, barbed wire perimeter of the camp as we hear her on the phone attempting to get access. All the while, we see the children, encountering new adventures and challenges but also entirely confined by circumstances, including the difficult conditions and poor schooling opportunities in the camp. In the midst of their bright and brilliant energy, that's a sobering thought. These tiny souls with enormous potential, deserve much better from the world.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2020
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Tiny Souls packshot
Following lives of three siblings in a refugee camp as their time their stretches from weeks to years.

Director: Dina Naser

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Jordan


Doc/Fest 2019

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