Part of this year’s IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary competition section, the Norwegian documentary When the Boys Return presents the distressing subject of conflicted youth, but lacks the emotive potency to leave an everlasting impact, writes Luke Richardson.
When the Boys Return opens in truly distressing fashion with some guerrilla filming of open fire on a Palestinian community. Shot from a distance, we hear the cacophony of bullets mixed with mothers screaming, children crying and images of Israeli tanks shooting at protestors, whilst other citizens are blindfolded and thrown into the back of army trucks. It’s a terrifying, yet incredibly motivated opening sequence, pictorializing the harsh subject matter, and the gruelling documentary we are about to witness.
From here, Norwegian filmmaker Tone Andersen shines the light on three young Palestinian boys. After several months, and in one case years spent in prison in Neighbouring Israel, former protestors Mohammed Jamil, Hamze and Mahran are welcomed back home with open arms and tears of joy. To the other young rebels, they are held as heroes; to their mothers they are seen as martyrs. Andersen and her small film crew follow the three closely as they try to reconvene life before they were taken away. But the brutalities of unjustly incarceration make it difficult for the three traumatised adolescents to contain their aggression long enough to sink back in to society, particularly when the fear of military attack is omnipresent and protestors are left dead on the street.
Starting with personal candid interviews, the documentary opens up to the bigger aftereffects of the conflict when the three head to group therapy classes with nine other boys from the neighbourhood who have all been left at the hands of social injustice. Together, they share their anger management issues, and the ongoing fears and nightmares they have about being taken back to prison.
At its best, Andersen seemingly strikes gold with some raw truth telling, such as when Hamze explains how he longs to be the first boy of his family to earn a high school diploma. Elsewhere, Mohammed Jamil nonchalantly explains how he sleeps fully clothed, ready to run if, or rather when, Israeli soldiers come hunting for him in the middle of the night. However, all too often this Norwegian production feels detached from the harrowing subject matter, with the fly-on-the-wall moments feeling touristic, rather than participatory.
There’s also a paradoxical issue at the crux of When The Boys Return. Not only are the boys uncomfortable about the potential implications involved with having an assumedly liberal, Western film crew follow their every move but, ranging from 15-18 years old, it is in their human nature to be apathetic, inexpressive teenagers. With the interview/counsellor both physically and aurally present throughout the film, he asks loaded questions such as “Did the bombings make you feel sad?” Not only is it a stirring interviewing technique, the constant interrogation is a desperate attempt to inflict emotion/reaction in the disgruntled minors who have passionately rebelled for the end of the occupation. Although the documentary paces through it’s brisk hour running time, Palestine’s pursuit for change continues.
This review was featured at DocGeeks. Be sure to visit the website for some excellent documentary discussion.