Forest Through the Trees: Ghabe (2020) - Reviewed


The refugee crisis is one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of the 21st Century and though many films, both narrative and documentary, have attempted to tackle it, few have captured it on such a deeply personal level like Markus Castro does in his debut feature, Ghabe.

A title card tells us that in 2015, over 160,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden looking for refuge. With the number of refugees exceeding the number of accommodations Sweden's Migration Board was able to provide, private citizens began lending out their summer cottages to refugees. Ghabe (meaning "forest" in Arabic) focuses on one Syrian family, particularly Monir (Adel Darwish) and their attempts to settle in to their new home.

Monir, suffering from PTSD and struggling to adapt to his new surroundings, finds a refuge of his own within the forest surrounding his cottage. It's here that he spends endless hours, days and nights, laying in a boat and staring up at the stars. He loses himself in the nature around him and begins running into to a neighbor (i.e. spying on her as she swims in the lake) of sorts, Moa (NathaliƩ Williamsdotter). The two begin a passionate and turbulent relationship, awakening Monir to comforts he never thought possible in his new life. But the realities of living as an immigrant bubble under the surface and it starts to become a question of "when" not "if" this relationship will end.

There's a ton to admire in Castro's approach to telling this kind of story. Rather than dwelling in misery and horror (though both certainly rear their heads), he immerses you into Monir's headspace as he immerses himself into the forest. Through surreal daydreams and flashbacks, we begin to understand the horror Monir lived in his home country. As he explores the forest, he finds a sense of calm and peace that he’s never been allowed to experience and begins to understand himself in ways he wasn’t afforded previously. It’s a great change of pace from films similar to this in that it allows the viewer to map a part of themselves onto Monir. 

Monir is largely silent, reactive and observant  through most of the film. Darwish plays him with a quiet fury and intense fear of being othered, attacked and ostracized. In Monir, you’re given a conduit to understand those feelings by sinking into the lush forest and exploring with him. Castro forces you to sit with Monir and his feelings, the good and the bad, as he tries to reckon with them. Staring up at a sky full of stars, Monir explains to Moa the vastness of space and our place in it. One gets the sense that as he relates just how expansive the universe really is, he’s also unpacking his place in it, more specifically his place in a foreign land. It’s a pretty incredible moment of storytelling, because even as he explains this, a mirror to his own alienation, it’s also the first time he truly opens up to anyone. That push and pull, Monir feeling lost and at home with Moa, is a thread that runs deep and Castro maximizes it to excellent effect. 

The true star of Ghabe, is the cinematography, in ways that are both a boon and a hindrance. DP Carl P. Rasmussen shoots the titular forest in a dreamlike, almost ethereal quality and it’s stunning. Monir experiences many awakenings in this forest and it’s treated with the majesty of something bordering on supernatural. Monir says it’s the only place that he truly feels like himself. Through long, hypnotic takes, the camera soars through the forest, above the water, up cliff sides, taking you on Monir’s roller coaster-like exploration of emotional discovery and turmoil. The problem is that sometimes it can be a bit much. 

When you have an artist as talented as Rasmussen clearly is, it makes sense to exploit that. There’s also the age old axiom of “too much of a good thing” and the photography often borders on that. There are many gorgeous moments stunted by the feeling that you’re watching someone enjoy their drone a little too much. On the surface it’s a silly complaint but the longer the film goes along, the more apparent that is. Especially in lieu of a narrative that struggles to get over the finish line. 

Said narrative is also a major stumble in that there isn’t much life to anyone or thing outside of Monir. This is absolutely a tone poem with a singular focus so that doesn’t derail the film but there’s zero characterization to anyone in Monir’s family outside of his cousin Farid (an excellent Ahmad Fadel). There’s no real effort made into fleshing out Monir’s familial life, no sense of internal life to them whatsoever. They exist as props to look on in anger or sadness and it’s a real shame.  The Swedish citizens that aren’t Moa are largely nameless, faceless caricatures that never feel threatening in the ways that matter. There’s a toothlessness to them and Monir’s reactions to them that really hamstring the message. That leaves the film to be hung upon Darwish and Williamsdotter’s shoulders who are thankfully up to the task. Castro’s script is largely empty outside of Monir. He’s able to mask that admirably through technical prowess but there’s a tediousness to it all that could’ve been alleviated had he devoted time to fleshing the world around Monir out. The film just can’t escape a sense of hollowness, however, and its parts end up being greater than the whole. 

That Ghabe is able to transcend its stumbles and still linger is a testament to a quietly sensitive lead performance and a sense of place unlike any other. Even if you’re unable to fully invest in the world around Monir, you’re pulled headfirst into his internal world making for a heartbreaking and lovely character piece. With breathtaking imagery Ghabe invites you to get lost in its deep, rich forest with Monir. An intoxicating experience that ends up being vast and expansive but not quite deep enough. 

-Brandon Streussnig