A boy attempts to plant his reed flute onto the dirt. Although his new friend laughs at the impractical idea at first, she’s intrigued and lends assistance. And thus, the metaphor takes root and sprouts into a tree at the climax.
Written and directed by documentarian and lecturer Alex Kronemer with Brandon Lloyd as director of animation, Lamya’s Poem tells the story of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee, Lamya (Mille Davis), who is ripped from her home by the Syrian Civil War, which claimed the homes of 12 million people. Lamya’s Poem bears the studiousness of an educative watch while flaring a fantastical imagination to entertain its target audience. Much like the Sundance-selected adult-oriented Flee and Nora Twomey’s imaginative The Breadwinner, the family-aimed Lamya’s Poem drenches its world in the animated realm to illuminate the macro and micro devastation of warfare as well as the power of imagination. The Canada-based Pip Animation Services infuses the world with a storybook style — a soft approach inspired by the paintbrush-stroked Loving Vincent — that will please the eye of children and adults who appreciate the simplicity of picture books.
For the first 30 minutes, viewers linger in Aleppo before the storm of bombs. Already, Lamya has suffered the loss of her father. As she glances longingly at text messages, her mother (Aya Bryn) fears for her safety. Lamya shares a bad feeling with her mother but also wants her right to a childhood. Red-eyed monsters lurk in the corners. In dreams, they’re a growling beast disrupting a starry night of fireflies. Lamya notices those same red eyes in real life on her own street, only they are the cigarette butts of uniformed soldiers emerging from a dark alleyway. Her teacher (Raoul Bhaneja) gifts her the poetry of the 13th century poet Rumi — for “Read” is the first word of the Revelation in the Quran. Lamya begins to dream up meetings with the young Rumi (Mena Massoud, with sharp adolescent precociousness and rage), a refugee who was expelled from his city when the Mongols invaded. Then her innocuous outing with friends is rudely interrupted by war planes dropping bombs. Will an eight-centuries-old book of poems help Lamya weather the storm as her home country is taken and is whisked into an unknown world?
Floating with lyricism, the three-tiered storyline of Lamya’s Poem rotates around to the reality of the protagonist fleeing Aleppo, the dreamscape where Lamya and Rumi commune and visit his endangered kingdom-like home, and to the fictionalized biography of the latter trekking through desert to seek refuge in Mecca. The integration of the metaphoric plane — past and present — is surprisingly balletic. Through time and space, these narratives weave together the film’s climatic epiphanies where the power of words inspires healing and purpose.
A storm separates Lamya and her mother, and the former is eventually forced to reside in refugee camps under a freeway bridge as police cars drive by overhead ominously and headlines scream the dehumanizing “illegals.” At the camp, Lamya find solaces with the mischievous neighbor Bassam (Nissae Isen with impish spirit). As kids who spent their times on flip phones, they mourn for a time where they had pleasures like treats, texting and music.
Meanwhile, the dreamscape world where Rumi and Lamya wander is fraught. Blood-tinted vines overtake Rumi’s kingdom-like city with fantastical aircraft — echoing the Ghibli-like flying machines of Castle in the Sky — as if to mourn for the lost technological potential stolen by war and strife. Young Rumi plots revenge on an AWOL Mongol warrior, however his father, the theologian Bahā ud-Dīn Walad (Faran Tahir), preaches the Islamic values of peace and encourages the boy to find purpose in poetry, since the pen can be a weapon enough and his verses could help generations — namely someone like Lamya.
Delicate shots captures the longing sea of separation and worry: a desperate widow surrendering her wedding ring to pay for passage, a submerged child glancing at her sinking possessions, a child hoping that the shadows of strangers will take shape as her mother, momentos being swept up in the wind and the brightened colors of laundry and keepsakes standing out against the drab foundations. When police brutality breaks into the camp, their shapes began as ruthless raiders in the mist.
Lamya’s Poem is best suited for streaming distribution since the documentarian Kronemer only shows a trying ability to accomplish theatrical flair. Still, a parent viewing the film with children can surrender to its spell and ambition, and forgive its lags. For the ease of its child viewers, Lamya’s Poem builds to an optimistic climax, resulting in the worldly issues remaining as irresolute as the realities of the crisis. However, it’s rare to come across a family-friendly, feature-length animation that wields such an uncompromising vision.
Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies Death, The Mary Sue, Bitch, Film School Rejects and Indiewire. Right now, she’s probably boiling ramen.