VERDICT: Writer-director Noaz Deshe's ambitious horror-tinged drama about the surreal absurdism of life in a refugee camp is messy and muddled but commendably original.

Stephen Dalton

July 3rd, 2024

Sombre dramas about the traumas suffered by migrants seeking asylum in Europe have become a film festival fixture over the past decade, boosted by ongoing conflicts in Syria, Palestine, Ukraine and more. So credit is due to director, screenwriter and cinematographer Noaz Deshe for approaching this well-trodden path from a more unorthodox angle in Xoftex, which blends real-life stories gleaned inside refugee camps with elements of horror, surrealism and dark comedy.

World premiering this week at both Karlovy Vary and Munich film festivals, Xoftex is only Deshe’s second dramatic feature, the belated follow-up to his Venice prize-winner White Shadow (2013). Commendably ambitious in intention, but frequently confusing in execution, it ultimately feels like a half-successful misfire, falling short of its grand performance-art vision. Even so, it should grab further festival interest and specialist screening outlets based on its newsworthy subject and bold stylistic flourishes.

Xoftex grew out of Neshe’s work with NGOs and refugee organisations between 2016 and 2019, notably in a notorious camp in northern Greece named Softex, so-called because the site was a former toilet paper factory. There he found rampant corruption and poor conditions, but he also established a fertile collaboration with an Italian theatre company, running drama workshops with stateless migrants. Much of the film’s dramatised scenes are drawn from these interactions with real-life asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Neshe is also working on a documentary about the Softex camp’s real former residents and how their stories developed.

The film’s central viewpoint belongs to Palestinian-Syrian teenager Nasser (Abdulrahman Diab), who shares a basic cabin home in the camp with his brother Yassin (Osama Hafiry). Stuck in a nightmarish limbo as they await their life-changing asylum decision, which can typically take between 12 and 18 months, the brothers and their fellow residents pass the time with homespun creative projects.

Filming on their phones, Nasser and Yassin stage fake TV news bulletins, zero-budget action thrillers and satirical skits about the tragicomic absurdism of migrant life. At one point, reacting to conspiratorial rumours that the Greek government is deliberately poisoning residents as part of a sinister medical experiment, they shift into shooting scenes for a zombie movie. These activities become coping mechanisms, welcome distractions from a life of numbing monotony and Kafka-esque uncertainty.

There is a lot going on in Xoftex, not all of it coherent or engaging. One sporadic subplot concerns the residents plotting retribution against a knife-wielding maniac who terrorises the camp on a daily basis. Another concerns people-smuggling gangs charging residents for helping them flee Greece for the Balkans by dangling underneath passing trains, with only a metal saucepan lid as protection from lethal flying stones. In a more conventionally structured film, these events would have gripping emotional power, but Neshe’s haphazard approach to plotting and character dilutes any dramatic momentum.

One of the film’s more esoteric motifs is a recurring reference to the “Casimir effect”, a theory from quantum physics which seeks to explain the mysterious attractive forces generated between objects in a vacuum, typically two parallels metal plates or mirrors. How this relates to the main refugee drama is not clear, unless as some kind of opaque metaphor. In the final section, Nasser appears to get his wish to settle in Sweden, where his sister already lives. But this chapter is the most surreal in the film, full of dreamlike visuals and jarring temporal shifts, leaving viewers with no clear narrative resolution.

If Neshe’s intention is to try an evoke the disorienting, alienating, mentally scrambling effect of refugee life, he succeeds all too well with Xoftex. That said, there is much to savour here in the film’s fable-like look and feel, including poetic images of exploded mirror sculptures, magical indoor trees and bizarre stone-carved UFOs hovering over the camp. The strikingly geometric camp setting is actually a fake recreation, constructed alongside a rail yard in Germany. A lively, flavoursome ensemble cast includes both actors and non-professionals, many of them former asylum seekers. The director also co-wrote the percussive, discordant score and handled the restlessly kinetic camerawork himself. Both help amplify the story’s underlying horror-thriller subtext.

Director, cinematography: Noaz Deshe
Cast: Abdulrahman Diab, Osama Hafiry, Jalal Albaroudi, Hazem Saleh, Moutaz Alshaltouh
Screenplay: Noaz Deshe, Babak Jalali
Cinematography: Noaz Deshe
Editing: Felipe Guerrero, Noaz Deshe
Music: Thomas Moked-Blum, Noaz Deshe
Producer: Andro Steinborn
Production companies: Arden Film GmbH (Germany), The Cup Of Tea (France)
World sales: Arden Film GmbH
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Crystal Globe Competition)
In Arabic
99 minutes


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