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‘Wake Up on Mars’ Review: A Heartbreaking Refugee Doc Hobbled by a Strange Cinematic Turn

Tribeca: Dea Gjinovci's first feature closely follows a family in crisis, but off-kilter bouts with magical realism keep it from real revelation.

Wake Up on Mars

“Wake Up on Mars”

Tribeca Film Festival

Ten-year-old Furkhan would like to travel to Mars. Pluto, too, but the whip-smart kid knows that’s a bigger gamble: After all, he’d be nearly 100 by the time he arrived on that distant sorta planet. As Furkhan dreams of escaping his current existence — living in a close-knit refugee community in Sweden, his old life in Kosovo never far from his mind or heart — he surreptitiously begins to build a spaceship from spare parts. Eventually, he crafts a dizzying vehicle that looks more like an art installation (and not the sort of thing that even a clever kid like Furkhan could build on his own) and starts dreaming of the red planet, telling his family about red dirt-covered adventures that have already appeared on screen.

It sounds like the makings of a sweet coming-of-age tale, an inventive outing about big imaginations and even bigger dreams, but it’s hardly the whole story. Instead, it’s an oddly cinematic (read: scripted, strangely polished, and out of place) diversion in Dea Gjinovci’s otherwise compelling documentary “Wake Up on Mars.” It’s understandable that Furkhan — a first-class charmer who would be an excellent focal point for any film — dreams of jetting off to Mars, given his family’s tenuous and often heartbreaking circumstances.

Those circumstances make up the ostensible aim of Gjinovci’s truncated look inside a struggling family, which generously let the documentarian inside some of their most personal struggles. While Furkhan dreams of a spaceship, his parents dream of something else: that his sisters wake up. In 2007, the Demiri family fled Kosovo after being consistently attacked for their ethnicity. Three years later, they were deported. Four years after that, they were allowed back into Sweden, where they still await a final decision in response to their pleas for safety and citizenship.

Along the way, trauma, stress, unimaginable pain, and a pair of horrific incidents put Furkhan’s two older sisters into persistent vegetative states. In a pair of hospital beds that form a neat corner in one room of their tidy apartment, Ibadeta and Djeneta lay in a pair of not-quite comas. Their family fusses around them and invokes a solemn dream: “when the girls wake up.” The sisters’ state is explained away via numerous visits from doctors, their own family’s consistent care, and informational television reports, billed as both a state of “apathy” and the more formal diagnosis of “resignation syndrome.”

Via a series of voiceovers from both Furkhan and from his parents, “Wake Up on Mars” unspools the wrenching story of what happened to Ibadeta and Djeneta, a trauma-induced malady recognized among the younger members of a growing refugee population. It’s as if they are hibernating from their fear and pain, and nothing their family can do — even dream as big as Furkhan — can pull them out of it.

It’s more than enough meat for a documentary, and the access granted to Gjinovci uncovers all manner of essential moments, from Furkhan admitting that it can be embarrassing when people see him with his sisters to their mother incisively unpacking her fear that her other children may fall ill, too. Meanwhile, the family is still navigating their citizenship bid, and Gjinovci finds pathos in even the most mundane bureaucracies. The stillness of their quiet village and the surrounding nature, stunningly shot by Maxime Kathari, proves to be a balm for the Demiris and for the audience.

As the Demiris continue to navigate immigration laws, Furkhan’s quest to blast off becomes still bigger and “Wake Up on Mars” leans away from the earthbound drama at its heart. That Furkhan — that anyone, given the circumstances — would want to travel somewhere else remains believable even as the film veers from its central story. Despite subjects who remain compelling throughout, the result is a divided documentary that struggles to bridge its gaps: No matter how visually compelling, this film is not actually about a kid building a natty spaceship.

While Gjinovci’s interest in editorializing doesn’t extend much beyond Furkhan’s adventures, that’s a mixed blessing; “Wake Up on Mars” builds to revelations that never make it to the screen, imagined or not. The effect is an unfinished story, though a good one, that spends far too much time dreaming of a life beyond the stars than digging into a rich world here on Earth.

Grade: B-

“Wake Up on Mars” was set to premiere in the Documentary Competition section at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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