I fell in love with the very first shot. The cinematography is so gorgeous, I was like, literally wherever this movie goes, I am in.
Neighbours tells the story of Sero’s first year of school. Set in Syria in the 80s, Sero is a 6-years-old Kurdish boy. We see the world through his eyes, as his whole world is his village, and his greatest wish is to get a tv to watch cartoons on.
The land he lives on was divided in his grandfather’s time by the English and French, and is now seperated into Syria and Turkey. Despite the fact they are close enough to see the Turkish border, they can’t get there to visit his mother’s family, who were on the wrong side when the border went up. Both states are virulently nationalistic, which leaves the stateless Kurds as a problem viewed with suspicion. Even when there is an annual holiday that allows relatives to speak across the barbed wire fence at the border, the guard orders, “Speak Arabic!” On the Turkish side they scream, “Speak Turkish!” Sero’s mother and grandmother speak neither language, and the absurdity is obvious to a child’s eyes.
A new teacher arrives at the village, aghast at what a backwater he’s been relegated to, and the obvious lack of nationalist enthusiasm from the residents. A Baathist zealot, he sets about posting photos of Asad everywhere, playing his speeches, and planting a palm tree in the playground. The palm tree is a symbol of Arab identity, and the teacher has a full-grown tree brought from the south to plant like a flag defiantly in this Kurdish village. “The palm tree grows everywhere on Arab soil,” he states proudly. Sero’s grandfather regards him, “It won’t survive our winter”.
The Baathist propaganda the teacher promotes is also viciously antisemitic. Opposed to the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land, all Jews become blamed as responsible, and viewed with suspicion by the regime. Jewish Syrians are stripped of their nationality, which effectively makes them non-persons in their own country, but also stops them from being able to apply for a passport to leave.
Sero’s next door neighbours are a Jewish family. They are as good as an extended family, with Sero as at home in their house as in his own. He comes over every Sabbath to light their lamps and stove in the evening. Their daughter Hannah is clearly in love with Sero’s uncle Alam. They stand sighing at each other across the garden wall.
The film begins by following the adventures of an ordinary 6-year-old. Seeing how high up a post he and his pals can pee. Making pictures with the set of paints Hannah gets him. Releasing balloons with the Kurdish colours near the border to bam up the soldiers, who machine-gun them.
The hardness of the world starts to creep in the edges of his innocence. The balloons are a good example. The children mull over their teacher’s rants, trying to figure our what Zionism and Imperialism are. His mate says they are two different kinds of scorpion, and he caught them once in a jar behind his outhouse. When the teacher asks how they are going to defeat the Jews, one kid suggests beating them at football.
Soon the darkness pushes further and further into Sero’s world. His teacher’s tales of Jews killing little children to use their blood in rituals, makes him hesitant to go next door to light lamps on Sabbath. Tragedy befalls the family, and his Uncle Aram mouths off about it, attracting the attention of the secret service. The village-world of Sero’s, which used to make sense, no longer seems to hang together or feel safe.
An amazing film, so well done. The cinematography is outstanding, the balloon dream sequence alone was stunning. The wee boy that plays the main character is fabulous! He’s so tiny, you can hardly believe he can convey so much emotion so vividly at such a young age.
A film about good neighbours and bad, about how respect for each other’s differences actually unites rather than divides. And at heart, a film about family, whether than be of blood or of choosing. Just a wonderful film.