Mahmud's Escape: A Syrian Family Seeking Refuge

Kurt PeldaAndrea Pfalzgraf

Switzerland 2016,1h 11min.

Most have probably had the experience of spending time somewhere unwanted – to be a temporary guest in limbo due to unforeseen circumstances. My experiences are limited to 12 hours in Frankfurt airport, where I tried to sleep on the floor under a bench, and was awoken by a passing woman pulling a noisy trolley case whilst she sang «On My Own» from the musical Les Misérables. Or, the time a friend and I had to stay the night at the Madrid bus terminal waiting for the connection to Córdoba, and were kept awake by an argumentative Jehovas Witness. Or, the 42 hours I spent on the top bunk on the Kolkate to Kerala train, so feverish that I hallucinated whilst alternating my gaze at the cockroaches on the ceiling and the two Christian Indian people trying to convert me.

The common denominators for such experiences are the feelings of powerlessness, physical discomfort and restriction. But what happens to people who spend considerable time in such situations, with a fundamental uncertainty of the final outcome coupled with constant danger throughout?

As a member of a relatively wealthy middle class with the «correct» nationality, it is impossible to be familiar with the situation of the millions who every day flee the Middle East and Europe. The documentary Mahmud’s Escape by journalist Kurt Peldas offers a cure to the naivety of the privileged classes. The film makes a sensational, deeply gripping and shocking attempt to enable the audience an intimate look at a family during the 21 days it takes them to flee the air strikes and gassing in Azaz, Syria, to Peldas’ own homeland Switzerland.

Surrealistic unpredictability. The director creates a framework for the documentary by allowing Mahmoud’s family to comment on the footage of their escape. This framework makes up for a large share of the finished film, and is the director’s most successful and unique take. Not only are the family members able to tell their story in their own words, but the audience are able to witness the refugees’ reactions to the images of themselves. It turns into a film within a film, where the director appears as co-narrator and facilitator. The children, in particular, enjoy seeing themselves on film, and playfully chants the names of family member and the colours of the cars as they pop up on the screen.

Kurt Pelda allows us an intimate look at each family member: the sober main character Mahmoud, his wife Fatima; their lively children Rayyan, Bayan and little Ammar, plus Mahmoud’s 19-year old nephew Issa, who joins the family as they flee. Mahmoud uses all available resources to orientate himself during the surrealistic and unpredictable escape – including a closed Facebook group and people-smuggling contacts. He is extremely committed to reaching decisions which offer the family the most safety. Fatima tried to keep up her own and the children’s courage despite cold, hunger, thirst and lack of sleep. Their oldest son Rayyan and daughter Bayan talk constantly about ISIS, who want to kill them. But the laughter and playfulness is never far away: the severity of the situation is brief for the children. The youngest boy, Ammar, sleeps through much of the escape, and has fever whilst in one of the refugee reception centres. During the escape, shy nephew Issa reveals that he is actually engaged to a woman whom his mother chose for him. He has never seen her, but trusts his mother’s judgement, and looks forward to marrying her when the time comes.

Fear. In a precursor to the escape, Pelda explains that he covered the Syria crisis extensively as a journalist, and has a debt of gratitude to Mahmoud’s family for protecting him during his time working there. The focus of his reports were Mahmoud and other rebels who fought against President Assad’s regime and ISIS: the journalist follows the rebels into the trenches where they dodge whining bullets, and into their workshops where they make the home-made, amateurish grenades, rockets and suicide belts. Mahmoud commutes between his home town Azaz and the refugee camp on the border with Turkey, where the family stays whilst they wait for the situation to improve.

When ISIS attacks a North-Syrian city using poisonous gasses in the summer of 2015, Mahmoud decides to escape to Switzerland. A natural observation of the documentary is that the director, to a large extent, contributed money, a network, transportation and an interpreter, which makes the family’s story less of a representation of the millions who flee without such a safety net. But, the family must undertake the lethal journey in a smuggler’s rubber dinghy from Turkey to Samos alone, financed by selling their house at half its actual value.

From Samos, the voyage carries on via ferry to Athens, then by train to Thessaloniki, followed by bus and car through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria and finally across the border to Switzerland. On the move, they meet the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and independent volunteer workers and activists, among them a group of Swiss youths on the border with Croatia. The rumours change constantly: Hungary has closed its crossings. Germany’s borders are blocked. Germany wants 700, 000 refugees, someone saw on TV. England says the same. It is evident that the European border patrols want to funnel the refugees through: quickly in, then quickly back out again to their destination country.

The fear of being stopped by police and border patrols follows the group throughout their journey. At any moment could their dream of a new life in Switzerland collapse. It is important to keep their chins up, to distract the children from the seriousness, to steal a little nap on a ferry, in a warm bus, on the bench in a boisterous restaurant.

Scenes from the rubber dinghy. In the film’s strongest sequence, Mahmoud instructs the children how to behave on board the rubber dinghy, and in the sea if they were to fall in. They have to keep calm regardless of what happens, keep wearing the orange lifejackets, and not play with the straps. The children nod and listen intently to their father, as nephew Issa films them using a mobile phone camera. The crossing itself is also recorded on the phone camera. A Palestinian steers the crowded rubber dinghy towards a light some 20 kilometres away. The 60 refugees sit as quietly as possible, but are close to capsizing three times as the waves play with them mercilessly. «Are you scared?» Mahmud asks his eldest son Rayyan. «No, I am not afraid but I am soaking wet, » the boy answers. «What about you? » he asks his daughter Bayan. «I am both wet and cold, » Bayan replies, also smiling.

The filming may, in some way, be a calming influence – there is something quite soothing in being captured in this discomfort, and thinking that there is a «thereafter» where they are able to watch themselves on the screen as they sit in a cosy living room. Or perhaps does the film work as its very own medium of the unconscious to treat dramatic experiences. As Bayan states at the end of the film: «Sometimes when I lie in my bed, the journey flashes before my eyes. »