When she was growing up, Patricio Galvez supported his daughter Amanda Gonzales in her decisions. His only concern was her happiness. She converted to Islam together with her mother. After she married fellow Swede Michael Skråmo, she became radicalised and joined the terrorist group ISIS. Her husband became a high-profile ISIS-warrior, recruiting for the terrorist group through social media. In 2014 the couple moved to Raqqa and in 2019, during the final battles, they were both killed. Their seven children, aged 1 to 8 years, were taken to the al-Hol detention camp in northern Syria. The camp has more than 70,000 inhabitants, mainly children who live in life-threatening conditions, several dying every day. The Swedish government, even if they knew that many Swedish children were stuck in Syrian camps, did nothing about it. Their grandfather Patricio Galvez was the kids ‘only chance to survive.
It is from him that the viewer gradually learns about all this. He is a Chilean immigrant to Sweden, so he speaks both Swedish and Spanish, but most of the time he is trying to express himself in basic English, often striving to find the right words. Thus, without any further comment, it becomes clear that he is trying to name things that we did not even know existed. Or, that only existed in thick books nobody cares to read anymore like Greek myths or the Bible.
Killers, too, have fathers. Galvez love for his terrorist daughter, his worries about her kids, the urge to protect the children of the enemy, to save lives of those who take life. There are also the feelings of guilt and remorse about that which he did or did not do while bringing up his daughter. All very common things showing that his situation might be unique, but we are all in this crazy world together.
The fact that Galvez is left to narrate his own story has another effect too. Together with the looks of a seventies’ rock star, mild manners and mode of reasoning, his troubles with the language indicate his vulnerability, making him a sort of anti-hero. Someone very easy to identify with. So, his narration gradually takes over the attention of the viewers and takes us along with him. First, on the search for the words to explain the strange world we live in. Then, on a very concrete mission of liberating the children of a dead Swedish terrorist couple from the detention camp and taking them back to Sweden.
The Swedish government, even if they knew that many Swedish children were stuck in Syrian camps, did nothing about it.
The director of this outstanding cinematic document, Gorki Glaser-Muller, is also a Chilean ex-pat living in Sweden. It was Galvez who suggested the film and Glaser-Muller, even if he was ready to help, did not embark on the project lightheartedly. He was not a journalist and had no experience with documentary filmmaking. Besides, as he later admitted in interviews, he was «terrified» at the prospect of the trip, fearing for their safety. The particularities of the journey to the war zone, with little or no diplomatic support, fully determined the austere look of the film. Glaser-Muller was his own crew, holding the camera and operating the sound. He avoided filming at checkpoints. Actually, as he always had to be very discreet, the key moments are not caught on camera. Yet, since he did not know in advance which contact would be vital, he filmed all the meetings and telephone calls he could. The filmmaker and the protagonist spent a lot of time together and their friendship strengthened. Most of the time, we observe Galvez waiting in hotel rooms, talking to his contacts on the phone, or talking to Glaser-Muller while browsing the memories of his deceased daughter stored on his cell phone.
Eventually, all these limitations turn into this documentary’s the most outstanding feature. What appears as a simple distant observation at first, gradually produces a feeling of actually being there and sharing the feelings with the concerned grandfather. A voyeuristic feast of participating in a personal drama that, in a way, concerns all of us.
What kind of people
The monotony of waiting, which itself is a source of precious information, also provides an excellent context for certain moments in which small bits of surprise suddenly materialise, then fade. Such as, the altogether mysterious emergence of the grandmother. Another wonderful feature of the film is how subtly it deals with the children. Their privacy is preserved, yet during the brief moments of their presence, the power of religion that we (or me, at least) believed was gone centuries ago painfully comes to the fore. For example, when children in emotional distress find relief in singing religious songs and in repeating religious mantras or hail God-is-great to gain courage. This shows how important the endeavours of Galvez and Glaser-Muller are and how European diplomats should stop waiting that the NGOs (who are of substantial help to Galvez all along) do their work and do their best to save as many as they can. While there’s still time.
I do not believe that one should blame permissive parenting for turning young Europeans into ISIS fighters. Not long ago, Sweden was another name for an open society. It embodied the values that define European modernity more than any other European country: democracy, individual freedoms, and a welfare state. Children of the Enemy is more than anything else a cry that it is not only a desperate father who needs to ask himself, what did I do wrong? We all should.