The Hollywood Reporter review of 'Journey on Foot': 'Honeyland' director with her effective blend of political urgency and poetic creativity
The second feature-length documentary of Tamara Kotevska interweaves the stories of refugee children with images from a project that uses the art of puppetry to raise awareness of young lives disrupted by war and persecution, writes film critic Sherry Linden for The Hollywood Reporter.
Read her review of the film below "Journey on Foot" in full:
With her first feature-length documentary nominated for an Oscar, the miracle "Honeyland", Tamara Kotevska shared the direction together with Ljubomir Stefanov to illuminate a distant part of the world. With the second film, she turns her attention to a headline story unfolding before our eyes, the global refugee crisis. Although this time the subject is a little more directly political, the director filtered it through creative lenses, presenting a different fairy tale. As with all good fairy tales, this one offers a heightened version of reality, blending the fantastic with the everyday. At the center of the story is Little Amal, a 3,5-meter-tall giant doll owned by a ten-year-old refugee girl from Syria.
"Journey on Foot" takes its name from an international project created to raise awareness and raise funds to help displaced children. Amal and her puppeteers, led by artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi, have traveled thousands of kilometers in more than a dozen countries since July 2021 and are now in Mexico, following their trek across the United States. But Kotevska's documentary is not so much about that project as it is a distillation of it, because it interweaves Amal's journey across Europe with a symbolic story of a real girl orphaned in the war.
Moving through city streets and village squares and across uninhabited landscapes, Little Amal is a mechanical and artistic feat that cannot be ignored. Kotevska and the editor Martin Ivanov skilfully put together the scene of building the Amal doll in three minutes. Scenes of designing, painting, tooling and tests by puppeteers at the Handspring Puppet Company, the South African company responsible for making Amal are interspersed with glimpses of a young girl drawing little Amal, like a kind of self-portrait.
Having lost her home and family in Aleppo, the girl is now on the opposite side of the border, under the protection of the Karam Foundation in Turkey, in the hope that she might be connected to a living relative. Similar shots between the doll and the real girl emphasize their symbolic connection. Working on conversations with Asil and other refugee children, the director created a narrative that is free, poetic and sharp. "I have to find a place where I can leave the nightmares behind," says Amal.
Those nightmares permeate the waking hours through sound and visuals, with several short bursts showing bombs exploding and people fleeing war zones in Aleppo. As Amal's walk progresses, from Turkey through Greece, Italy, France and Britain, ending with a moving operatic climax on the English Channel, Kotevska inserts classroom scenes: Asil and other refugee children learn about European culture. Their desperate assumptions about the dominant religion in Italy are a priceless reminder of the artificiality of the many social divisions we cling to.
Amal herself has contact with nature as well as with people. The camera led by Jean Dakar and Samir Ljuma presents us with the beauty of everything around us, from the fluttering of pigeons on the minarets to the flow of the wind on the desert dunes, but also the tents of displaced people on the city streets, the painful hope in Amal's gaze and the psychic wounds carried by all the refugees he meets along the way. The huge girl, so obviously inhuman and yet so cute, is much older than she really is, she is the embodiment of compassion, the confessor of the children and adults in the refugee camp, and as one of the most painful confessions is that of the refugee from the Gambia who describes his near-fatal journey to the European continent.
The three main puppeteers control Amal and direct her movements. The one in the open cage of her corset over her billowing skirt steers her usually with a sure and sometimes hesitant step. Her hands require two puppeteers for whom, most importantly, Amal's journey through Europe has a deeply personal meaning: Fida Zidane from Palestine and Mouad Rumieh from Syria. Kotevska devotes time to each of them and intimately penetrates into their stories, leaving a touching impression.
As Amal's journey reaches a point of desperation (after encountering anti-immigration protests in Greece, for example), the puppeteers' faces reveal how strongly they feel their struggle – Fida in relation to the loss of the land and freedom of Palestine and its people, and Muad about being torn from his home in Syria and how his memories from there are disappearing before his eyes. In a loud narration that cannot help but remind us of the ongoing destruction in Gaza, Amal wonders: "When all that remains of our lives is desolation, dust and rubble, will anyone know we ever existed?"
While aware of the scale and theatricality of Amal's journey and her role as a surrogate for millions (almost half of the world's refugees are under the age of 18), "Journey on Foot" is a story told through the power of the world's symbols of power, but it points directly to of their limitations. Amal's visit to the Pope in the Vatican during the ceremony celebrating the children covers both ends of that spectrum, while the visit to the human rights organization of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg painfully shows Europe's limitations: all the representatives can do the group to give Amal the flag of Europe and a fake passport, encouraging her to share it with the other children she meets along the way.
Aside from such empty gestures, the children whom Amal meets usually welcome her with amazement and delight. Some adults see her as a Trojan horse, some express anger, and others eagerly join her goal of spreading the word. Highlighting a story that is gaining media attention, "Walking" doesn't opt to take a political side or stir up conflict. This film contains the core of life embodied in a wooden doll – a refugee and is a story straight from the heart.