Fatima: Coming of age as a refugee

20 November, 2022

IDFA, the world’s most comprehensive documentary-specific film festival, featured a lone full-on Romanian production across its 2022 100+ film programme. Screening its world premiere within the Youth Documentary (14+) Competition and as part of the European Cultural Foundation-sponsored Pathway: Life in Europe section, Lucia Chicos and Alexandra Diaconu’s Fatima tells the story of an eponymously named teenager living in Bucharest for four years after fleeing war in her native Afghanistan. The documentary, which includes support from One World Romania, UNHCR, UNATC, and ViraFilms, does not reinvent the wheel; however, it does offer a singular refugee experience many outside those directly involved may be familiar with.

Mostly, the film is observational in its structure, following Fatima in her day-to-day activities. As a teenager, she engages in all that you may expect – school, friends, fashion, crushes; however, as the timecode progresses with the camera lingering in the background, eventually Fatima’s more aloof, playful side turns into something much franker, ultimately twisting the traditional observational structure, dotting the remaining film by periodically speaking directly to camera via a video diary-esque form. Perhaps the result of pandemic lockdown isolation, the camera-direct Fatima is a much more layered version of herself, navigating the delicate spaces of familial expectation vs self-desire, refugee status vs normal teenage life, and so on.

One such moment of directness comes around at the film’s midway point. Though essentially a vlog entry, it has a fourth-wall-breaking feel stylistically transgressive from the rest of the film (and the wider observational, refugee coming-of-age subgenre that Fatima exists in – a recent narrative example being Emma Kawawada’s Berlinale-premiered My Small Land). At this point, we’ve gotten used to the film’s fly-on-the-wall approach, but as our protagonist sits in a park and, in a lengthy monologue, discusses the latest developments in a USA-Taliban “truce” back home, we are reminded of the many layers of experience, grief, and longing she must incessantly feel. The scene feels like the film’s emotional heart and is the clearest example of its stakes. Other such scenes, where Fatima discusses her thoughts on the coronavirus and vaccines, or even a possible online marriage, for example, do not have the same narrative impact but are nonetheless interesting in their singular subjectivity. Drawing reference from two narrative films, though not yet screened in this country, the sequence reminds me of two recent stand-out, single-take midway point monologues from Rebecca Hall and Mia Goth, in Resurrection (r. Andrew Semans) and Pearl (r. Ti West), respectively. In both those sequences, each coming as an interruption to much of the film before it (albeit in dramatically different genres), the same stakes are laid, emotions bared, and expectations flipped. In much the same way as Fatima’s extensive emotional outpouring, we clearly understand the above-mentioned stakes affecting the hurt and displaced, especially those still finding themselves as both woman and adult.

From the Soviets of the 80s to the US-led (Romania-included, see Vlad Petri’s excellent short documentary, The Same Dream) coalition of the aughts, Afghanistan’s sovereign destiny has been heavily burdened as a result of its natural resource abundance, geo-location, and a continued crusader mentality. As an eighteen-year-old, it is unclear whether Fatima truly understands the geopolitical history and realities of her situation. And perhaps she shouldn’t. As with young people across generations, nuance is a skill for discovery. The idealism of the young is one that only exists in the hypothetical, hardly ever a tangible reality. As we see with the current regional conflict, the truths of such events are far from their mainstream representations – often situated as existential battles of good vs evil by respective propaganda machines. But, in a globalized world, where commodity means more than human life, and geopolitical power rules all, the idea of a “war on terror” (in Afghanistan’s case) inciting incident as virtuous is laughable at best and regionally destroying at worst. I doubt that Fatima has given much thought to this or the fact she lives in a place that shares a level of complicity in the very reasons for her displacement. But her efforts and admiration for her forced home are admirable. Her Romanian language proficiency is very high; she seems comfortable and accepted by her peers, with the most profound areas of culture shock seemingly behind her, all signs of heightened maturity and steadfast emotional resolve. There is no weak-minded whining from Fatima.

Fatima is the result of a One World Romania workshop, “make a film with a refugee”. As such, it is an example of the best Europe can offer to these people, the world’s most vulnerable. Both as a film and a person, Fatima represents an ideal example of how inorganic the concept of “otherness” is. Here, the film pays its ultimate service, honestly and accessibly showing a singular experience in a singular place at a singular moment in history, the sum of which is rarely seen anywhere in the media (Romania is hardly a mainstream-media-focused hotspot, refugees or not). One can only hope the universality of films like this continues to lay the groundwork for an increased acceptance of those in Fatima’s place – where the red carpet is rolled out for some, while others are all too frequently left to drown in the sea.

"New to Bucharest by way of Amsterdam, Brooklyn, and a few others, Steve is the communications manager/industry editor for Modern Times Review documentary magazine. He was also senior editor for New York-based IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t. At Films in Frame, his documentary column features on the last Wednesday of the month.