'Lamya's Poem' - Zurich Film Festival review

As he weaves the story of a modern-day Syrian refugee with that of beloved 13th century poet Rumi, Alex Kronemer brings humanity to an all too current theme and does it through an animated film that captures hearts.
'Lamya's Poem' - Zurich Film Festival review

It is unclear where the Sufi poet Rumi was born -- some place him in what is modern-day Afghanistan, some in Tajikistan. In Alex Kronemer's beautifully made Lamya's Poem, he is a young refugee, born of Persian-speaking parents, fleeing the Mongol invasion in 13th Century Afghanistan. And that sounds just right.

Parallel to the poet's plight, we find a young Lamya, living in Syria with her mother, her father having been killed not too long ago while attending a peaceful demonstration. Politics are thankfully left out of the story, while Kronemer skillfully concentrates on the humanity of his animated wonder. Lamya is a regular girl, she uses her cell phone to text her friends and argues with her loving mom about homework. Yet her childhood isn't a normal childhood, while the perils of a civil war are looming, ever present all around them. As Lamya and her mom fall asleep, there are bombs exploding, every day getting closer and closer to their home.

As schools are closed due to the conflict, Mr. Hamadani, a kind older man, brings books around to his pupils and provides them with both a bit of culture and a semblance of normalcy. One day, Lamya is given a big red book of Rumi's poetry and it is within this gift that her life and her future are forged.

Because at one crucial point in the story, Lamya and her mom must leave Syria, traversing a sea managed by thugs and opportunists, a body of water which eventually manages to divide them, two human bodies. And only Rumi has the power to reunite them.

What is interesting is how Kronemer -- who co-wrote Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, the celebrated 2015 animated film about the birth of Islam -- weaves a tale in three parts. One is of course Lamya's all-too familiar plight of the refugee. The second is Rumi's youth, as a young man named Jalāl who must also traverse strange lands to find safety with his father. But there is a third tale, in part a take on the power of friendship, and also somewhat futuristic and sci-fi in look, which shows a fictional moment in time when Lamya and Rumi meet. Together, they fight demons and spread the word on the power of collaboration. Rumi is indispensable to our spiritual growth these days as he points steadfastly to a collaboration between people, and shows us the way to a shared sense of humanity.

For those who have read Rumi, and thereafter finds themselves quoting him almost on a daily basis, this film will feel both familiar and also experimental. Never has his poetry been used in such an imaginative way. For those who have yet to discover the wonder that is his writing, this will be a journey into something wonderful. A new territory that looks beautiful -- the animation's broad strokes have a painting-like feel to it -- and is filled with potential.

The idea, the creators admit, came out of a story they heard "about a group of Syrian refugees in a park in Athens who were reading poetry to each other, and Rumi was one of the poets they were reading. This caught our attention. Rumi’s poetry is often associated with themes of love, which seem very remote from the experiences of these refugees. But upon deeper examination, we learned that it wasn’t as strange as it might appear at first glance." In fact, they continue to explain in the press kit for the film, "Rumi’s poetry is rooted in parts of his life story that are much deeper—and earlier—than is often understood.As a boy, Rumi was himself what we could call a refugee, as his family was forced to flee the MongolInvasion that swept across Central Asia and overmuch of the Arab Middle East."

Although the characters are young and as an animated film it would seem targeted for junior audiences, there are such strong themes featured in Lamya's Poem that I almost felt like this is a strictly grown-up film. But the ending did bring it back to a kids level in the sense that, without giving anything away, younger audiences won't walk out disappointed. The futuristic side of the visual narrative will also appeal to younger audiences.

The music is noteworthy and is composed and orchestrated by Christopher Willis, the British composer also responsible for co-composing the music for the HBO comedy series Veep. Willis collaborated with Hossein Omoumi, one of the world’s foremost performers on the Persian ney, the traditional Middle Eastern reed flute that Rumi is seen playing in the film, and old Arabic favourites are also mixed in to create a stunning soundtrack.

Canadian TV actress Millie Davis voices Lamya perfectly, while Disney's Guy Ritchie-directed Aladin star, Egypt-born Mena Massoud voices Rumi with style.

Lamya's Poem plays next at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It world premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival this past June, before screening in Zurich.

USA/Canada, English, 2021, 88 minutes

Director Alex Kronemer

Screenplay Alex Kronemer

Animation & Art Direction Brandon Lloyd

Editors Glenn James Brown, Paul Neumann

Original music composed and orchestrated by Christopher Willis

Producers Sam Kadi, Glenn James Brown, Alex Kronemer

North American sales ICM Partners

International sales Westend Films

Main voice cast Millie Davis, Aya Bryn, Mena Massoud, Faran Tahir, Nissae Isen

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