The documentary Back Home Tomorrow blazes out of the gates with a form/content double-shot—high-contrast, Meirellesian HD images capturing every spec of dirt and grue clinging to the petrified face and heaving torso of a seven-year-old Afghan boy injured after playing with an undetonated mine. "Call my father! I'm dying," he sobs, as premature awareness of his own mortality dawns incongruously on his cherubic face before directors Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Paolo Santolini show the right arm that now ends at the halfway point and the flaps of skin that used to be his left hand's fingers. The boy, Murtaza, is at the center of two parallel stories. The other involves Yagoub, a 15-year-old boy refugee from Khartoum whose medical crisis—he needs an expensive surgery or else his heart will continue to expand within his chest, killing him within a year's time—is presented against the imposing aftermath of the second Sudanese Civil War. Lazzaretti and Santolini frame Yagoub's struggle against his own suggestively symbolic heart muscle within scenes depicting his mother's resigned reaction to the price tag ($5,000, which may as well be a million...and, in fact, is, in Sudanese pounds) and his community's emphasis on highly physical, full-contact masculinity (the filmmakers dwell at length on an almost balletic wrestling match). Both Murtaza and Yagoub are victims of war; the former is trapped inside a hospital during a long and painful rehabilitation, while the latter is kept outside by the alternately prohibitive and exploitive costs of medical care. That said, their stories are unique enough that one wishes they'd each been given their own individual film. While it doesn't diminish the inherent emotional power of each boy's plight to put them through the gauntlet of crosscuts, there is enough disjoint to put the entire project's narrative thrust in jeopardy. Nonetheless, Lazzaretti and Santolini are diligent enough documentarians that they capture moments of moral clarity, such as when the weeping mother of a mine victim thumbprints her consent to the surgery, using a piece of her own anatomy to allow doctors permission to remove the same piece from her son.
Back Home Tomorrow premieres June 19 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.