SKY AND GROUND (Talya Tibbon & Joshua Bennett, 2017)
Sunday, November 12, SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves., $19, 6:45
Thursday, November 16, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., $12, 10:15 am
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
The DOC NYC festival, consisting of more than 150 nonfiction feature films and shorts, has room for stories small and large, allowing viewers to understand the world from the macro to the micro; Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett’s Sky and Ground, having its world premiere November 12 and 16, zeroes in on the micro. In his sweeping new documentary, Human Flow, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and his crew went to twenty-three countries and dozens of refugee camps to personalize the growing international migrant crisis. Among the places he visited was the Idomeni tent city in Greece at the now-closed Macedonian border. The makeshift camp is the starting point for Tibbon and Bennett’s startling and intimate Sky and Ground. Tibbon embeds herself with the Nabi clan, led by Abdullah Sheik Nabi, known as Guevara for his childhood admiration for Argentine rebel Che Guevara. Guevara and his family have escaped the dangerous situation in Aleppo, Syria, and are trying to get to Berlin, where Guevara’s brother, Abdo, lives. But getting there is a harrowing journey, fraught with police and military, rewards for citizens who turn them in, cheating smugglers, and more impediments to their attempts to find a new home. “If we stay here in this misery, my family will go crazy,” Guevara says of the camp, and they are soon back on the road, not knowing what fate awaits them. Using the GPS on his cell phone and staying in touch with Abdo, Guevara has taken charge because no one else could, accepting responsibility for his mother, Jalila; his sister, Shireen, and her husband, Souleiman; and his nieces and nephews. The film plays out like a gripping thriller as the family sneaks through vast landscapes, wooded areas, isolated camps, and train stations, knowing they could get caught and sent back to war-torn Syria at any moment. “Everywhere I go, I lose my home,” Shireen says, while Jalila adds, “I am very, very regretful. I’d rather have bombs dropping every day than go through this torment.” But Guevara never gives up, no matter how treacherous things become. “After trying to get in touch with ten smugglers, all of them proved to be liars and frauds,” he explains. “We have no choice but to attempt to smuggle ourselves again.”
The arresting film is beautifully photographed by Emmy winner Axel Baumann, the lush vistas and sunsets in stark contrast to the Nabis’ heart-wrenching dilemma. In addition, Guevara documents everything he can using his cell phone and a handheld camera given to him by the crew. Tibbon and Bennett, who are also two of the producers — Guevara is credited as one of the coproducers — puts the viewer right in the midst of the action, helping us understand the Nabis’ strife and fear. They could be a middle-class family from anywhere; they are not poor and uneducated but an intelligent and clever group with money and connections and yet still are thwarted at nearly every turn, though they manage to maintain their faith and even their sense of humor throughout. There is a fascinating, unspoken aspect to Sky and Ground that went on behind the scenes; the filmmakers might have embedded themselves with the Nabis, but they had access to a car and slept in hotels as they followed the family across several countries. “As a filmmaker, ‘embedding’ with your subjects poses moral and editorial dilemmas on a daily basis,” Tibbon notes in her director’s statement. “When Jalila, the family matriarch, wondered why we couldn’t get them a car (or put them in ours), or when the kids asked why do I get to go back to a hotel at the end of the evening and they don’t, I didn’t have good enough answers. They weren’t criminals and I wasn’t better than them. . . . But from the outset we knew we couldn’t do anything illegal (like sneaking through borders) and we also knew that we didn’t want to do anything that would potentially put the family at risk or alter their journey.” Sky and Ground is a terrifying film to watch not only because it is hard to know what we as free individuals can do about the crisis but also because in today’s situation across the globe, it makes you realize that this could happen to just about anyone. Part of the Humanity on the Move trilogy from Show of Force, Sky and Ground is screening on November 12 at 6:45 at the SVA Theatre and November 16 at 10:15 am at IFC Center, followed by Q&As with Tibbon, Bennett, and producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre.