Symbols are like Alfred Hitchcock’s (flawed) definition of drama — “life with the dull bits cut out.” Their universal appeal derives from prioritizing a familiar amalgamation of lived experiences over intimately, uniquely personal ones. In effect, they embody what’s traditionally perceived as “important,” forgetting that the value of this importance is different for everyone because of their unimportant (“dull”) bits.
This tension (or lack thereof) between the symbolic and the personal is at the heart of director Tamara Kotevska’s The Walk. Its painfully evident parallel narrativization — a minor complaint also leveled against her otherwise memorable 2019 beekeeping documentary, Honeyland — even promises that the film intends to do something with its puppet/person dilemma. Initially, the film’s juxtaposition of the wonderfully elaborate construction of a three-and-a-half meter tall puppet Amal, “walking” from the Syrian border in Turkey across Europe in search of a home to represent the journey of millions of migrant and displaced children, and the heartbreaking reality of Asil — a young Syrian refugee in Turkey mourning her separation from her homeland and family — poses a thorny question for The Walk’s well-intended but arguably oversimplified humanitarian gesture: can a symbolic puppet really represent the whole spectrum of pain experienced by one person, let alone millions of displaced people?
Besides a moment or two of genuine deliberation, the film’s answer is strongly affirmative. The parallel tracks mostly rhyme: Asil’s voice becomes Amal’s, and Amal’s acceptance in the different European countries she’s traveling to corresponds with Asil finding her bearings in Turkey. It’s poetically harmonizing in a way that doubles as a glowing advertisement for The Walk‘s humanitarian project. Cynicism aside, this approach can still be immensely moving. Person and puppet — a representation of millions of displaced people’s individual pains — can cover each other’s visible scars through their shared pain (the film ever so briefly evokes this in a haunting moment, when ghost-like whispers of presumably dead or lost refugees seem to become another voice of Amal) without sacrificing the personal nature of it.
The Walk, unfortunately, doesn’t manage to do this. Its overly glossy images play out like a unionizing montage that Kotevska and editor Martin Ivanov surely intended as an artistic statement: an aesthetically pleasant bringing together of an otherwise divided, fractured world. Noble as that intention is, the impact is quite the opposite. The film’s necessitated sameness of life experiences, despite its feeble attempts at personalization, undermines the wide-ranging spectrum of experienced life. Amal becomes Asil, and likewise for her two puppeteer operators, Mouaiad and Fidaa; both refugees have profoundly moving personal stories that the film barely develops. Aphorisms like “home is defined by the people around me” replace actualities. Interesting lives without the dull bits, that is, manufactured, “important” drama, take over life itself — crucially defined by those very dull bits.
Published as part of DOCNYC 2023 — Dispatch 2.