Two Places, One Family
A Year Without My Parents (2015), directed by Dutch filmmaker and social activist Els Van Driel, chronicles the strength of kinship — both in separation and reunion. After fleeing war-torn Syria with his uncle and brother, eleven-year-old Tareq relies on sporadic Skype sessions to update his parents on life in Dutch suburbia — a place that, despite its idyllic scenery and accepting classmates, only feels like home once his parents join him after months of eager waiting. The film is part of “Just Kids” (Mensjesrechten), an award-winning youth documentary series that explores human rights issues through the honest and authentic voices of children. Driel’s motto: “inherit your child’s eyes and look through them.”
It is with this insistence on truthful storytelling that Driel approaches her subject in A Year Without Parents: the articulate and supremely mature Tareq, whose onscreen presence is just as powerful as his off-screen narrations. “I wanted to protect my family,” he states when detailing his tumultuous sea voyage from Syria to Italy, a journey that was too expensive for his self-sacrificing parents. With a unique blend of stoic maturity and childlike charm, he details the tribulations of the trip: huge waves, a hesitant captain, and a toilet that “wasn’t very clean.” The utmost irony comes when, in demonstrating his cross-continental journey on a map, Tareq hesitates in labeling Italy: the same boy who escaped his war-torn homeland is not yet versed in basic geography.
This straddling of innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood, is a paradox that Driel highlights throughout the documentary. Tareq’s trip to a local pool, for instance, starts with a playful soundtrack and following shots that bring viewers along for the ride — literally — as the boy catapults down waterslides. But as he eats ice cream with his cousin by the poolside, Tareq's remarks seem oddly adult. “It’s very different here,” he states. “You don’t hear any explosions or bangs. There’s no war.” Shots of their blonde-haired counterparts, joyfully splashing in the water, underscore the common interests between the two groups and, yet, their ultimate separation.
But Tareq stands out even among his own relatives. In an interior establishing shot of his home, for instance, Tareq sits alone at the far end of a dining table, composing a video for his parents while his cousins play chess on the opposite end. Beyond his descriptive Skype videos, Tareq serves as his parents’ primary navigator and advocate: in the days leading up to their arrival, he even requests appropriate housing and visitation rights during a meeting with an immigration official. Tareq’s extraordinary maturity is confirmed in the final sequence, when his father barely recognizes the eleven-year-old’s transformation: “I have a new son.”
But one thing remains constant: Tareq’s relatability. It transcends his age-defying personality, which surely resonates with viewers of all ages. Rather, Driel’s strategic, largely handheld cinematography relays the boy’s experiences in an intimate exchange with the audience. A recurring classroom scene, for instance, features rapid, shaky pans to mirror Tareq’s wandering gaze; rarely is his own face in the frame, thus minimizing his presence in the predominantly blonde classroom. Conversely, the boy’s Skype sessions with his parents profile Tareq exclusively — imparting on the viewers a similar sense of separation from the Syrian-tied couple and a desperate longing to see their faces. In fact, an unfamiliarity with Tareq’s parents heightens the viewers’ suspense during the airport scene, when a succession of shots between Tareq’s hopeful gaze and couples emerging from sliding doors suggests, for a split second, that they will never come — a wait that makes the actual reunion that much more joyful to watch.