It is deeply poignant to come close to Mahmoud's family during the flight from Syria to Switzerland. Even the life-threatening inflatable boat ride over icy seas has been documented – with a small mobile camera.


21 days of perpetual discomfort

Most people have probably experienced having to spend time in an undesirable place – being a temporary guest in a limbo due to unfortunate circumstances. For my part, such experiences have been limited to 12 hours at Frankfurt Airport, where I tried to sleep on the floor under a bench and was awakened by a passing woman with noisy trolley singing "On My Own" from the musical Les Misérables. Or that time a girlfriend and I had to spend the night at the Madrid bus terminal in anticipation of the morning bus to Córdoba, and were kept awake by a vigilant Jehovah's Witness. Or the 42 hours I spent in the top bunk bed on the train from Kolkata to Kerala, so feverish that I was hallucinating as I alternated between staring at the rooftop cockroaches and the two Christian Indians in the coup trying to repent.
Password: vdr2016st002

Common to such experiences is the feeling of powerlessness, physical discomfort and freedom. But what happens to people who have been in such a situation for a long time, with a fundamental uncertainty about the outcome and constant insecurity along the way?

As a member of a relatively prosperous middle class with "the right" nationality, it is impossible to understand the situation of the millions of people who are on the run every day in the Middle East and Europe. Journalist Kurt Pelda's documentary Mahmud's Escape offers an antidote to the ignorance of the privileged. The film makes a startling, deeply poignant and appalling attempt to bring the audience close to a family in the 21 days it takes them to flee from air strikes and gas poisoning in Azaz, Syria to Pelda's own homeland of Switzerland.

Surrealistic unpredictability. The director creates a frame for the documentary by letting Mahmud's family watch and comment on the video footage of the escape. The frame forms a significant part of the finished film, and appears to be the director's most successful and original grip. Not only can family members tell the story in their own words, but the audience gets to see the refugees' reactions when they see the pictures of themselves. There will be a movie inside a movie where the director appears as co-narrator and facilitator. Children, in particular, enjoy watching themselves on film, and playfully show the family members' names and the colors of the cars as they appear on the screen.

Kurt Pelda lets us in close to every family member: the insane protagonist Mahmud, his wife Fatima, the lively children Rayyan, Bayan and little Ammar, as well as Mahmud's 19-year-old nephew Issa, who joins the family on the run. Mahmud uses all resources to orientate himself during the surrealistic unpredictable escape – including a closed Facebook group and smuggling contacts – and makes every effort to make decisions that give the family the greatest possible security. Fatima tries to keep her own and the children's up, despite the cold, hunger, thirst and lack of sleep. Elder son Rayyan and daughter Bayan talk incessantly about ISIS, which is looking to kill them. But laughter and play are never far away: the seriousness of the situation does not take lasting root in the children. The little boy Ammar sleeps through much of the escape, and gets a fever in one of the refugee centers. Shy nephew Issa reveals along the way that he is actually engaged to a woman the mother has chosen for him. He has never seen her, but relies on her mother's taste and looks forward to getting married when the time comes.

Fear. In a recording of the escape, Pelda states that he covered the crisis in Syria as a journalist over time, and in this regard he stands in debt of gratitude to Mahmud's family for protection during their work stays. The focus of the reports was Mahmud and other rebel fighters in the fight against President Assad's regime and ISIS: The journalist follows the insurgents down in the trenches where they dodge whining bullets, and into the workshops that manufacture the homemade, amateur grenades, rockets and suicide belts. Mahmud commutes between the hometown of Azaz and the refugee camp on the border with Turkey, where the family stays waiting for the situation to improve.

When ISIS attacks a city in northern Syria with poison gas in the summer of 2015, Mahmud decides to flee with his family to Switzerland. A natural objection to the documentary is that the director contributes to a large extent with money, networks, transport and interpreters, making the family's history less representative than the millions who flee without a corresponding safety net. But the life-threatening journey by smuggling boat from Turkey to Samos has to be done by the family alone, financed by house sales at half the rate.

From Samos, the trip goes via ferry to Athens, from there by train to Thessaloniki, and then by bus and car through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria and finally across the border into Switzerland. Along the way, they meet the Red Cross, Red Crescent and independent volunteers and activists, including a group of young Swiss on the border with Croatia. Rumors are constantly changing: Hungary has closed its borders. Germany has closed its borders. Germany wants 700 refugees, some have seen it on television. England says the same thing. It turns out that the border guards of the European countries want to lock the refugees through: quickly in, quickly out again to the destination country.

The fear of being stopped by police and border guards follows the group throughout the journey. At any moment, the dream of a new life in Switzerland can collapse. It's about keeping up the courage, distracting the kids from the seriousness, stealing some sleep on a ferry, on a hot bus, on the bench in a noisy restaurant.

Scenes from the inflatable boat. In the film's strongest sequence, Mahmud instructs the children on how to stay aboard the inflatable boat and in the sea should they fall overboard. They have to be calm no matter what happens, keep the orange life jackets on, and not play with the straps. The children nod and listen to their father in concentration while their nephew Issa films them with a mobile camera. The crossing is also filmed by the mobile camera. A Palestinian refugee steered the crowded inflatable boat to a light 20 kilometers away. The 60 refugees sit as quietly as they can, but are close to toppling three times due to the brutal play of the waves. "Are you scared?" asks Mahmud eldest boy Rayyan. "No, I'm not scared, but I'm wet," the boy smiles. "What about you?" he asks daughter Bayan. "I'm both wet and cold," Bayan replies, but manages to smile, too.

Maybe the filming is soothing in a way – that it is somewhat comforting to be immersed in the discomfort, and the thought that there is an "after" where they can watch themselves on film while sitting in a warm living room? Or maybe film acts as the subconscious's own medium for dealing with dramatic experiences. As Bayan says at the end of the movie: "Sometimes when I'm in bed, the journey pops in front of my eyes."

Subscription NOK 195 quarter