The floodwater gives a new life each year to the trees and the families, says one of the film protagonists. The victims of severe floods that devastated the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna in May and the great part of Slovenia in July this year would hardly agree. All they see now is destruction. The story about the young orphan Afrin, however, is a story about a world where the floods have already become the new normal and is thus worth listening to. This hybrid documentary by Greek director Angelos Rallis won the WFF Award for Best Environmental Film at the 2023 Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival and another five awards, including Best Documentary at the Giffoni Film Festival and Jean Lup- Passek at MDOC – Melgaço International Documentary Film Festival. Its North American premiere is scheduled at the 42nd Vancouver Film Festival.
The new migrants
Afrin was born on one of the mud islands lying along the lower course of one of the largest rivers in the world, the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh. There, climate change has amplified the river’s impact, and severe floods and displacement are now a way of life. We learn from the introductory titles that the director met her during the floods in 2017 and filmed with her for 5 years. Her journey is presented as «an allegory for millions of other young people facing the same situation.»
When we first see her in the film, Afrin is playing «the floods» with other kids, yet they are actually swimming in the water while they do so, and the protective barrier they pretend to build is wiped away a second later. Undoubtedly, the coming floods might take away the island (what was left of it). The people who take care of Afrin decide to find her a husband. Only 12 years old, she prepares to leave to avoid a forced marriage. Her mother died, and her father abandoned her and left, but before leaving, we learn that he taught her the skills to survive the floods, including rowing. She sets to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to join him.
The mighty heroine
The director presents their visual and artistic approach as observational, residing between «contemplative cinema, theatre and creative documentary with fictional aesthetics». Their goal to induce a sense of slowness and ensure the viewer has time to understand and connect with the characters and to become immersed in the events unfolding before them seems reasonable. It might be explained as an effective, intuitive way of showing that conditions such as severe floods have developed beyond the immediate urgency of the situation into something that can occur at any time. The dramatic «found» sounds of thunders and heavy rain followed by the violins’ music representing the river’s harmonious movement might indicate they are both part of the same reality.
Other elements feel more anachronistic, for example the beautifully glowing skin of the young woman swimming in the polluted, muddy waters of the Brahmaputra river. The lively colours of clothes, textiles, and other objects amid the humid grey world of heavy rain. Careful, central, and symmetrical visual compositions of the shots represent the world in disdain. Or the narrative that focuses on one single person, a female teenager, the mighty heroine, at the moment when the humans are beginning to acknowledge just the opposite – that not only are we all connected with and dependent on each other but also that we are all part of one single world we share with animals, plants and matter.
This highly aestheticised and stylised approach to the representation of the messy, unpredictable world full of extremes has the potential to raise attention. The tragic story of the beautiful young orphan with a lean body and big black eyes will earn sympathy for the Tokai, trash scavengers from Dhaka, who help Afrin when she reaches the city. It will, hopefully, raise awareness of and sympathy not only for the poor people from the mud islands of Bangladesh but also for other people all over the world whose homes and homelands (for example, the Marshall Islands in the Pacific) might be completely flushed away by the floods and rising sea levels.
Afrin can overcome the strong wind and heavy rain on the river as well as the heavy noise, pollution, and violence of the metropolis. She is skillfully moving along the powerful stream of water with the high speed of the train, yet she also needs other people. The slow observation approach with long takes and extended durations provides first-hand insight into their lives and their mastery of the ever more important survival techniques, the techniques of dealing with high waters, including literally moving in it waist-high, and techniques of differentiating and disposing of the garbage.