(Germany, Austria, Somalia 2022; Dir: Mo Harawe)

Will My Parents Come to See Me

Performative Indifference

review by Matthew Chan

Will My Parents Come to See Me

length: 28

year of production: 2022

country of production: Germany, Austria, Somalia

director: Mo Harawe

production: Mo Harawe, Alexander von Piechowski, Nuh Musse Birjeeb, Ahmed Farah

director of photography: Steven Samy

editing: Alexander von Piechowski

sound: Mohamed Abdinur Isse

cast: Xaliimo Cali Xasan, Shucayb Abdirahman Cabdi, Maxamed Axmed Maxamed, Mohamed Hirsi, Geenyada Madaw, Faysal Colaad Muxumed, Guuleed Xasan Saleebaan

festivals: Berlinale 2022, Glasgow Short Film Festival 2022, Vienna Shorts 2022

© images: 'Will My Parents Come to See Me' (Mo Harawe)

For many modern cinephiles there is almost an automatic sense of caution when viewing a work revolving around a contentious real world issue. Though some may couch it under wider concerns regarding proper research and representation in front of and behind the camera, what really sets people off is a desire not to be emotionally manipulated or talked down to. In that sense, sentimentality is very much not in vogue, as seen from the vitriol Sian Heder’s ‘Coda’ (2021) received from winning Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards, being derided as schmaltzy at best and patronising at worst. In many respects the attitudes of a large portion of cinephiles have morphed from a Gen X shoulder shrugging indifference to a Gen Z post irony, nonetheless a detached cynicism rings through in both. Mo Harawe seems to understand this instinct and with ‘Will My Parents Come to See Me’ (2022) has perhaps crafted one of the most cynical films ever made about the death penalty. Which is not to say that the film condones the act, but is instead guided by a desire to portray the process as it is, with all participants involved flexing a similar indifference in order to not fully implicate themselves in the act and not to let their emotions get the best of them.

Harawe’s film is possessed by an impeccable formalism throughout, being driven by strong aesthetic choices that help to articulate a very clear visual language. The confines of the prison — its offices, mess halls and cells — are lit by natural light, only slivers of which are able to enter the rooms through small windows which provides an imposing, inky atmosphere. Characters are frequently shot in side profile while in conversation, which serves to further detach the audience, depriving them of the usual emotion indicators of the human face rendering these encounters utterly impersonal. These smart choices work in the service of Harawe’s narrative, which weaponises its linearity, slowly dragging us towards an inescapable predetermined outcome. What is perhaps most impressive about Harawe’s directorial instincts is his sense of restraint. We are never told outright what the film is about, instead we simply start by tracking the day of a prison guard and a prisoner, who just so happens to be a teenage boy. There is a continuous sense of discovery within the initial landscape of the work as it unfurls and as the context presented keeps shifting: from a regular jail cell to one fully inhabited by children to one inhabited by children who are also death row inmates. Harawe does not withhold information per se as much as he shows us just exactly what we need to see.

At the crux of the film is the relationship between the guard and the boy, as we see her bring him around various locales before his execution. There is a knotty quality to how they interact and an underlying tension between the guard’s maternal instincts and her professionalism, the former of which is seen when she asks early on, with what appears to be empathy, what he wants to eat for what is presumably his last meal. It is in these interactions that the boy’s young age and unawareness of the world is underscored, as he is seen to operate on simple, base needs with his only desires being to have a Coca Cola and to see his parents, as per the title. Despite the fact that they share a majority of the scenes together they barely lock eyes when occupying the same frame, but are frequently the object of each other's gaze when captured alone. Another of Harawe’s visual choices is the repetition of frames, particularly a shot of the boy sitting within the interior of a car, the window acting as a frame within the frame with his side profile outlined within it. While the boy’s expressions remain blank there is something subtly devastating about these scenes, as if he’s catching his last glimpses of the outside world, being so far detached from it by a single pane of glass. It is telling that the only other character framed in this manner is the guard, capturing both of them in brief moments of introspection, both emotionally constricted by the system.

Harawe eventually locates the inherent tragedy of the situation through a strict linearity, with the boy being shuttled through an especially cruel, mechanical process, captured through still shots that evoke a regimented rigidity, where he’s ironically brought to a medical checkup in order to be deemed fit for execution and is told the schedule of his death with robotic detachment by a court worker. It is implied that the boy is on death row for religious extremism of some sort, yet his complete indifference to the Imam of the prison mosque suggests that he may not have known the actual gravity of his actions and may be mentally incapacitated, barely being able to understand anything around him or the nature of his execution. It must be said, however, that while some may see mental incapacitation as grounds for a pardon from the death penalty, like this recent case in Singapore, it should not matter regardless because the entire act is inherently immoral. If anything, the implicit suggestion of the boy’s mental disability serves to further emphasise the sheer cruelty of the state, who hope to wash their hands of anyone involved in acts of terror, regardless of their ability to comprehend their actions at their tragically young age.

When assessing the nature of the performances on display here, one is immediately reminded of Bresson and his approach to directing his actors. Every actor in the film composes themselves with a series of blank inexpressive stares, delivering dialogue in a dry matter of fact manner, as if to suggest that their emotions are intentionally being tampered down. For Bresson, this approach, which reduced the actor to something more akin to a reactive model, was done in the name of honesty, the idea being that only the audience themselves could project the emotional quality of the scene, that the work was only what they made of it. In the context of Harawe’s film this goes hand in hand with the avoidance of sentimentality, there are indeed tragic circumstances at play but you would never be able to grasp the gravity of the situation from the facial expressions or vocal timbre of the actors. In many respects, this enhances the viewing experience for the already cynical audience. In no visible way is the work manipulating you, indeed, what we see appears to be quite objective, yet the cruelty of the bureaucratic process is completely self evident.

One is also reminded of another aspect of Bresson’s cinema: the element of inevitably, the understanding that from the start the ending is already predetermined. Harawe’s film features no suggestion of any escape from the death penalty, the only relief being defined in vague spiritual terms. For everyone involved in the process there seems to be a mutual understanding that there is no fighting the system, that it is not worth expending any additional emotional energy. Every adult the boy encounters (the guard, doctor and Imam) present themselves in the same detached, impersonal manner, to the extent that the lack of any semblance of warmth or personability can be perceived as another wholly intentional form of acting. For Harawe execution is theatre, with everyone forcing themselves to act in every step of the process, no one really wants to be there and no one wants to make themselves feel complicit in the cruelty. The film essentially becomes a microcosm of the same attitude that poisons modern society, particularly in countries that still have the death penalty, that if you choose not to acknowledge it, its functionally does not exist in your life.

The one moment where genuine human emotion is allowed to peek through is during the execution itself, which smartly comes in hand with a complete dismantling of aesthetic order: set in a bright exterior location with a shaky panning camera. We only ever catch small glimpses of the act through the frame of a car window, as if to distance us and prevent us from fully confronting the overwhelming emotional intensity of the scene, as the prior image is reversed and the boy is cruelly placed at the other side of the glass. Yet in this moment, Harawe fully confirms that the character the audience is supposed to be most clearly aligned to is the guard, who wilfully avoids viewing the execution, turning up the radio to let pop music drown out the boy’s screams. It is as if our own cynicism, our own indifference is being turned back on us, we may be wholly desensitised to images of tragedy, both real and fictional, and perhaps scared of actually engaging with their implications, but how much longer can we ignore the screams?