ACT Human Rights Film Festival: ’69 Minutes of 86 Days’ shows the journey of a Syrian refugee family and their hopes for a new life

Evan Vicchy

Collegian Reviews (Illustration by Caleb Carpenter | Collegian)

Director Egil Haaskjold Larsen deftly captured the human nature of being a Syrian refugee in “69 Minutes of 86 Days” on the closing weekend of ACT Human Rights Film Festival. 

This is not your average documentary; this is experimental filmmaking at its best. For starters, there are no words.  There is no narrator to tell you where they are, what they’re doing there or why any of this is happening. There are no sit down interviews, no maps or diagrams or any cue that this is a documentary. All we see are the people in detail as they begin their journey from Greece to Sweden to get as far away from Syria as possible. 

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“This film was kind of trying to find a new way of looking at things,” Larsen said. “Make it more simple.”

Larsen profiles the lives of a Syrian family displaced by civil war. Their story begins on the shores of Greece where hundreds of tents line the beach. Empty water bottles and trash decorate the pavement as men and women brush their teeth and rinse off with water from a hose. 

The star of the show is a little girl with a purple backpack. As a three-year-old, this girl doesn’t really know what’s going on. As she, her parents and other extended family members move from tent to tent, country to country and bus to bus, she smiles, laughs and sings the whole way. 

“We met a beautiful family with a beautiful three-year-old girl that for me said something about the human basic elements which the film is trying to communicate,” Larsen said. 

Because she is so innocent, it’s hard for her family to keep up with her energy on an exhausting journey. If anything, this journey to Sweden is taxing, embarrassing and scary. 

For example, the family makes it to Serbia. There, they are herded like cattle behind a metal barricade patrolled by police. If anyone dares to put a finger on the rail, a nightstick swoops down and rattles the barricade as the police shout and threaten the refugees. 

As for our main character, she sleeps on the shoulder of one of her family members as they stick together through the crowds of people in the dark of night. 

The most arresting part of this film is the quality of the camera shots and the camera movement. For a filmmaker walking the streets with the refugees, there is a remarkable stillness. The camera seems to glide through the streets without a single bump or jolt. 

The most memorable part of the whole documentary is when the family is temporarily stranded and can’t find a ride to the train station. If they don’t make it to the train, they will be left behind. The camera rests of the face of a family member carrying the girl with the purple backpack. The look on his face is distraught, scared and expressionless all at once. Suddenly, the man sheds a single tear, wipes it away, takes a deep breath and pushes onward. 

With its unconventional structure, “69 Minutes of 86 Days” evokes the sense that you are the refugee. The movement of the camera is first person in nature and focuses on little details that could only be seen in real life. As the camera passes by people in tears, cradling their children and many broken smiles, it feels deeply human and real. While it’s hard to see a family go through such an ordeal, the fact that they can keep moving forward is inspiring. But what makes this an especially great film is the little girl. Her toothless grin keeps the family going even in the most hopeless circumstances, working to give her the best life she can live.   

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Collegian arts and culture reporter Evan Vicchy can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @evanNOTkevin7.