Petra Schlømer
Writer and Editor, freelance

The war in Syria has now lasted six years.

According to UNICEF, one in three of today’s Syrian children have never experienced anything but war and flight. Every week hundreds of families flee. There are also close to three million children fleeing internally in Syria, and half of all the five million Syrians fleeing Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbouring nations are children. In the media, there are terrifying stories about siblings returning from school finding their home has been bombed, and their parents dead. Newspaper headlines state: ‘An entire generation is lost – what now?’ There is a multitude of news in the media, photographs of children in the midst of a devastated Aleppo. Simultaneously, questions arise how an entire world can sit by and watch 100,000 children trapped inside an Aleppo still suffering bombardments? Such questions should be superfluous, but are, nevertheless, not.

is it actually possible to become immune from watching too much horror?

Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others was published in 2004, and in it Sontag discusses the observer’s role when faced with images of war. We can no longer say that we are unaware of what is happening due to the massive press coverage. But, Sontag asks herself, do all these horrific images we are inundated with awaken us and create involvement? Or, is it actually possible to become immune from watching too much horror? The images we are exposed to, in particular through the tabloids, currently try to surpass one another in horrific imagery to evoke disgust, or emotions in the observer.

Egil Håskjold Larsen’s latest documentary 69 minutes of 86 days (69 minutter av 86 dager) attempts to counter the fear, consequent selfishness, and polarising which the overwhelming media images can lead to. Can feelings of helplessness arise when faced with an overexposure of images? Could it make us feel as if there is no point in getting involved? Egil Håskjold Larsen directs his camera at three-year old Lean’s flight through Europe. By focusing on one child, and showing that she is but a regular child, he tries to induce human relations and personal empathy. 69 minutes of 86 days starts on a beach in Kos, from there we follow Lean’s escape through Europe together with her family, all the way to her grandad in Uppsala, Sweden. All events are presented through a subjective, silent camera lens. This stance very successfully helps create a very different type of documentary. The missing voice-over, complete absence of interviews or informative text are all well-known documentary genre elements.

A child who engages – in stark contrast to the frightening backdrop Europe offers up.

The observer is, in this documentary, transformed into one of the many in the group, and must personally evaluate all events in the absence of clear direction. This notion helps make the events seem closer and create a greater proximity to what is shown. The camera is frequently at one meter’s height, positioned between adult trouser legs, just where Lean is, as she walks hand in hand with an adult. In the film, she is portrayed as a regular, bemused, playful child, despite seemingly realising that her family are in a dangerous situation. A child wearing the same Frozen backpack any Norwegian three-year old would wear. A child who happens upon some pretty stones on the ground and thus delays her family in front of a border control. Who plays with her uncle, sings a song or shares a lollipop with her younger sister. A child who engages – in stark contrast to the frightening backdrop Europe offers up.

As the camera is but a silent observer, there are no location or situation descriptions, nor explanations offered by Lean or anyone else in her family. Just as Lean does not know whether she is in Italy, Germany or The Netherlands, nor will the observer, bar some vague background references. It is up to the observer to, at any one time, guess their whereabouts and what is actually happening behind Lean the child. Despite this, it is surprisingly easy, as many of the locations and situations are already familiar thanks to news footage. Such as used lifejackets, a rubber dinghy on the edge of a beach, passport controls, congested trains, tents, a large field. Larsen stated, in connection with the film, that the child is standing alone as a symbol of something pure and undisturbed. Their innocent and open attitude to what they meet brings hope and indicates that humans inhabit something good to start with. Being presented as a regular child who could be Norwegian, could be from anywhere in the world, Lean helps create a closeness to the situation. She shows that refugees are not solely statistics, numbers and images to be ignored. Similarly, Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others reminds us that even though you can feel powerless, it is important to realise that the situation is genuine. That to some, it is a living nightmare. Through Lean, Larsen provides fleeing children with a face. These are actual people, actual children who currently are experiencing our time’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe. Children who right now are in Syria and children who just now are fleeing from there, they have the same rights as children in Norway.

This will also be the topic for Save the Children when they screen this documentary in a collaboration with cinemas in Tromsø, Trondheim and Bergen in mid-March. This is in relation to their stepping up the efforts for fleeing children currently being let down by the world.

 


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