A refugee finds solace in literature in Lamya’s Poem, a Syria-set, English-language feature which premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Written and directed by Alex Kronemer, it stars Millie Davis (Wonder) as the voice of Lamya, a spirited 12-year-old who lives with her mother in war-torn Syria in 2016. When her teacher lends her a book by 13th century poet Rumi (Aladdin‘s Mena Massoud), Lamya magically connects with the writer in 1221. He, too, is experiencing conflict, anger and doubts about his future, and a fantastical friendship develops between the pair of thoughtful, troubled youngsters.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth, this is an effective exploration of a child retreating into fantasy in stressful circumstances. “We live in one form in this world, and another in a timeless land,” goes one line of dialogue, which encapsulates the central idea.
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Despite the paranormal flavor, the sense of threat feels very real in the 2016 scenes. As bombs fall ever closer to their home, Lamya and her mother cling to each other in bed, before Lamya sleeps and dreams of escape. The drama escalates as she must flee the city in dangerous circumstances, with adult events glimpsed through the eyes of a child who is being forced to grow up far earlier than she should. There’s a particularly sad scene when she witnesses her mother begging a ruthless trafficker to include them on his boat, desperate to save her child but heartbroken at the prospect of losing her wedding ring (Lamya’s father is absent, implicitly dead, after attending a protest).
While the dialogue seems aimed at older children upwards, the animation has a mature feel: Kronemer references watercolor paintings as inspiration, and there’s a decorative, steampunk vibe to some fantasy sequences. A reed flute with magical properties leads to enjoyable interludes with a slightly lighter tone, while a light-fingered local boy introduces moments of broader comedy.
But in general, the film strikes a serious tone as it examines opposing themes including love and war, compassion and conflict. It also emphasizes the importance of education and literacy: reading saves Lamya’s life in more ways than one. In a twist worthy of a time travel movie, her bond with Rumi even helps him find his calling and write the poem that inspires her.
Lamya’s Poem could have used a few more of the light touches, but it’s still a vivid and affecting depiction of a child fighting real-world problems with powerful poetry.
Further screenings of Lamya’s Poem will take place during the virtual Cannes Market. West End Films has international sales and ICM Partners handles North America.