There is plenty of humor and devious satire in this child-centered story that explores the roots of hatred in the Middle East. NEIGHBORS (Neighbors) by the Swiss-Kurdish director Mano Khalil is a Swiss film set 40 years ago in Syria, in a small village where Kurdish and Jewish families are neighbors. In fact, there is currently only one Jewish family in the village, although there used to be more, a change due to the increasingly hostile policies of the ruling Syrian Baathist Party. Based in part on the director’s bittersweet memories of his own childhood, he captures the joys and heartaches of childhood and also explores the absurdity of bigotry, anti-Semitism and conflict through the lens of those childhood memories.
“Neighbors” begins with a framing device in the present, where an extended Kurdish family, after fleeing the violence in Syria, lives in a refugee camp and is waiting to hear from someone they have reached in Switzerland. The answer comes in the form of a picture and the request that the family patriarch (Sherzad Abdulla) identify the people in it. It is not a photo, but a children’s drawing, a drawing that brings back childhood memories of 40 years ago.
The flashback takes us 40 years back in childhood memories, when the middle-aged man was a seven-year-old boy in a small, mostly Kurdish village on the Turkish-Syrian border. Starting with the theme of the drawing, little Sero (Serhed Khalil) and his beloved uncle Aram (Ismail Zagros) prank the Turkish border guards by releasing balloons in the Kurdish national colors. It sure is something that infuriates the Turkish guards, but otherwise it is a harmless blowing nose on a border that divided Kurdish families, including their own, and made them outsiders in both countries on both sides.
Uncle Aram is the younger brother of Sero’s father, a fun-loving, mischievous young man whom the seven-year-old loves. In their small Kurdish village on the border, everyone knows each other and everyone understands each other. While the children rush through the village in a playful way, the village elders watch and shake their heads at “children nowadays”. Sero’s neighbors are a Jewish family that his family has known and befriended for years. Sero helps them on the Sabbath by lighting the lamps and the stove, which his uncle Aram did when he was younger. Several Jewish families once lived in the village, but now they are the only ones who have fled. They would also like to leave, but now the Ba’ath government will not recognize Jews as citizens and will not give them passports.
The village is waiting for the arrival of two things: the electricity and the new teacher. The power lines have been in place for some time and the village houses have been wired for electricity, but no electricity has arrived yet. Sero particularly longs for electricity so that he can watch cartoons like the kids in town – and he keeps bothering his parents about a television.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of humor and charm in this childish game world, although this drama has a serious side and tragic events finally strike. Much of this charm comes from the young Serhed Khalil as Sero, a cute boy full of mischief and playful joy. But all the actors bring warmth and attraction to their roles, especially Ismail Zagros as Aram and Uygurlar Derya as Hannah, the daughter of the Jewish family. The Jewish parents want to flee Syria and above all get their daughter out, but Hannah does not want to leave her homeland and especially her childhood friend Aram behind.
Although there is no electricity yet, a new teacher, Wahid Hanouf (Jalal Al Tawil), arrives. The teacher is a strict believer in Assad’s Ba’ath Party, whose ideology is a mixture of communist and pan-Arab ideas without actually being both, but with a large dose of anti-Semitism. The teacher thinks that conveying these anti-Semitic ideas is his job as well as teaching reading and writing. First, the teacher insists that the children speak only Arabic in class and at home. Sero doesn’t particularly like the school anyway, but he is really at a loss now when the teacher insists that everyone only speaks Arabic, which he neither speaks nor understands. When the teacher starts repeating old anti-Semitic myths, Sero doesn’t believe what the teacher says about his kind neighbors, but other children accept the lies and other malice.
The teacher is the outsider who brings hatred and anti-Semitism to the village and disrupts their quiet life. He is supported by a local who is the only member of the village’s Ba’ath Party, a membership that has given him a home and a job despite his illiteracy. These two are the main villains of this story from a child’s perspective, but other representatives of the authoritarian government in the story, such as the border guards and bureaucrats, bring with them either danger or a callous indifference and corruption. The film has a strong, satirical clout in its terrifying portrayal of how hatred is taught as the teacher indoctrinates his accused with anti-Semitic ideas that include the old “blood libel”. Sero’s parents and grandparents as well as his Jewish neighbors with their long-standing friendship and helpfulness form the counterbalance to this.
NEIGHBORS is both a touching, warm-hearted human story, peppered with humor and childlike attraction, as well as a pointed satirical look at the roots of hatred, not only in Syria. NEIGHBOURS, in Kurdish, Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles, plays on Tuesday, November 9th at 7pm and Wednesday, November 10th at 4pm at SLIFF
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars