Review: A remarkable story, the documentary ‘Children of the Enemy’ tests the will

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To quote the late, great Tom Petty: “The waiting is the hardest part.” Just ask Patricio Galvez, the empathetic protagonist of writer-director Gorki Glaser-Müller’s timely and unnerving documentary “Children of the Enemy,” which tracks Galvez’s heroic, near-two-month journey in 2019 to rescue his orphaned grandchildren from a Syrian refugee camp.

How this Chilean-Swedish musician came to have seven grandkids, ages 1 to 8, being held in the notorious al-Hol detention camp is a singular story indeed. It began when his daughter, Amanda, converted to Islam at 18. She then married fellow Swede and Muslim convert Michael Skråmo, who would become Scandinavia’s most infamous ISIS terrorist. Radicalization led the couple to relocate with their four small children to Raqqa, Syria, in 2014 to join the fight for a caliphate. They would go on to expand their young family by three.

In January 2019, Amanda, pregnant with her eighth child, was killed in an airstrike; Michael reportedly was shot to death two months later during the fall of the caliphate. That’s when their children were sent to the teeming and squalid al-Hol facility. Meanwhile, indecision and an apparent lack of sociopolitical will by Swedish authorities kept these “children of the enemy” stuck in the dangerous camp and dangling in limbo.

After learning from a London human rights lawyer that, despite some health issues, his grandkids were remarkably still alive, Galvez, with filmmaker friend Glaser-Müller (also Chilean-Swedish) in tow to document events, decided to fly from Sweden to the Middle East and work with the various humanitarian and diplomatic factions to secure the children’s release.

But holed up in a hotel in Erbil, Iraq, less than 200 miles from the Syrian border, there’s just so much Galvez can do to drive the confusing and complex process. He largely relies on anxious phone calls and bits of uncertain information from the powers that be as to when — and if — he’ll ever see his grandkids, much less return with them to Sweden.

So we wait — and wait — with Galvez, who’s rarely out of Glaser-Müller’s viewfinder, as the days frustratingly tick by, broken up by press interviews, web browsing and fleeting signs of hope. The result is a gritty, vérité look at a grandfather’s anguish and resolve, a kind of video diary that mostly eschews the usual documentary bells and whistles.

Unfortunately, the tedium of Galvez’s on-hold state sometimes bleeds into the viewing experience. Glaser-Müller could have used the downtime to provide more insight into such personal things as Galvez’s musical career and relationships (he divorced Amanda’s mother nearly 30 years earlier, when their daughter was a toddler; he also has two teenage children, briefly seen here, but is no longer with their mom), as well as how he managed the finances of this costly international travel ordeal.

So despite Galvez’s many moving displays of emotion and mentions that he could have been more proactive and vigilant about Amanda, we’re often left to fill in the gaps about this seemingly resilient bohemian with the unruly black hair, guitar-pick fingernails and ease at toggling between Swedish and his native Spanish (with some English tossed in too).

The film really gains steam when, after an aborted trip to the Syrian border, Galvez unites with his grandchildren, meeting the youngest three for the first time, as they’re suddenly transported to the Swedish consulate in Erbil. He takes them back to his hotel suite — which he has lovingly stocked for their arrival — to wait again until arrangements are finalized to return with the brood to Sweden.

It’s a chaotic interval as Galvez, with help from Glaser-Müller and an array of volunteers, tends to these clearly disoriented, overwhelmed and needy kids. That the children’s eyes are eerily blurred out here (for identity protection) limits our emotional and visceral connection with the towheaded septet. Still, we can’t help but feel Galvez’s primal love for them.

Meantime, when Amanda’s contentious mother, who had converted to Islam along with her daughter, intrusively arrives in Erbil to be with her grandchildren, she and Galvez experience a culture clash that turns proprietary and he sends her packing. It’s a reality-TV-worthy moment; there’s obviously a thorny — and unexplored — rabbit hole of history between them.

The dire theme of innocent children being blamed for “the sins of the father” — and the attendant social and political turbulence they face — as efforts are made to find these youngsters a safe and loving place in the world receives a vital spotlight here. (An estimated 40,000 children are still trapped in northeast Syria’s al-Hol and Roj refugee camps.)

‘Children of the Enemy’

In Swedish, Spanish and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 17, Laemmle Newhall

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