Mahmouds’s Escape

Kurt Pelda

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.

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