The colors are unnaturally vivid in “Wake Up on Mars,” which takes place in Horndal, Sweden, a place that can be blindingly white when draped in snow during the winters, but inside the home of the Demiris, it is a simmering red when Dea Gjinovci first lets audiences inside, casting a glance at a bed shared by Djeneta and Ibadeta, a pair of teenage sisters who have been comatose for the past few years. Their younger brothers Furkan and Resul keep active, showing an interest in crafts that extends to building toy rockets, while their parents Nurje and Muharrem are concerned for them all after relocating from Kosovo and nervously await the status of the application for asylum after being violently driven from their home.
If the Demiris are experiencing severe disorientation in their new environs, Gjinovci shrewdly turns that feeling around on audiences as it’s revealed that Djenata and Ibadeta suffer from a severe case of resignation syndrome, an unusual psychosomatic disorder that became prevalent in Sweden in the early 2000s amongst the refugees they welcomed from war-torn countries. With only Resul fluent in Swedish, it’s possible that only he would know from the radio that Gjinovci occasionally relies on for exposition that the family isn’t alone in their battle with the disorder, but it certainly feels that way and the filmmaker turns to the one least affected amongst the brood, the youngest Furkan to turn the nightmarish experience into a fantasy, innocently approaching this unfamiliar life as if it were a space exploration.
“Wake Up on Mars” breaks new ground in terms of relating the refugee experience, letting the central metaphor gradually fade into the background as the family settles into a new normal, facing the instability of not knowing whether their temporary stay will ever become permanent with a residency permit and waiting restlessly for Djeneta and Ibadeta to awaken. While Furkan steals away every now and then to embark on his biggest project yet, a human-sized spaceship that he’s putting together with scrap metal from the local junkyard, Gjinovci stealthily transports audiences into a life that can never seems to be entirely real, though relatively mundane, illustrating how the most common aspects of a domestic existence for one part of the world are taken for granted when they prove to be such a struggle for the Demiris, who not only deal with bureaucratic obstacles but emotional peril at every turn when painful memories of their life in Kosovo come flooding back.
Using great imagination to get inside the minds of her subjects, Gjinovci tastefully navigates the space between the more fanciful elements of “Wake Up on Mars” that primarily involve Furkan and the verite footage she captured from embedding with the rest of the family, working with editor Catherine Birukoff to create a cohesive middle ground. The instinct to tell the story from a child’s perspective opens up a whole realm of possibilities that the film takes advantage of, from gently detailing how the world is impressing itself on Furkan to a lack of cynicism that his parents may never show in front of their kids, but is inevitable given their impossible circumstances, and although hope is a luxury that Nurje and Muharram can’t afford, “Wake Up on Mars” finds it in the capacity to think beyond what our own experience is to consider others.