Karlovy Vary 2024 review: Xoftex (Noaz Deshe)

“The authenticity of all its stories and characters gives Xoftex its true punching power.”

“Am I Dreaming or Are You Dreaming of Me?”

Eleven years after winning the Lion of the Future Award in Venice for his debut White Shadow, director Noaz Deshe returns with Xoftex, a film about the refugee situation in Europe. The film started as research for a documentary (and that doc will still be completed soon), but then evolved into a fictional narrative nourished by the real-life experiences of Syrian and Palestinian refugees he came across along the way. The story of Palestinian-Syrian Ali Abbas and his brother and how they coped with the dehumanization in a Greek refugee camp is the heart of the film. 

Softex near Thessaloniki is regarded as the worst refugee camp Greece has been managing. Built on a desolate toilet paper factory, it lacks the resources to offer decent living conditions to its forced inhabitants. And since it is built behind an industrial train yard, gangs providing illegal escape routes to whoever pays the price become another threat to security. Refugees who wait for a response to their asylum applications are no different than prisoners or victims of a concentration camp. And the main issue is inevitably to preserve their sanity of mind.

Ali Abbas and his brother Mohammad’s way of dealing with the conditions was filming comedy sketches and editing them into an amateur movie. It’s not only films, but also games that help these people cope. They imitate their interviews with officials for their asylum, for example. Most dream of going to France or Sweden, but they know they’ll be pushed to Poland or Bulgaria instead, and they mock this situation. These games, these theatrical imitations provide some laughs, and laughter is always the best medicine, as it prevents Ali and Mohammad from losing their minds.

Except for Nasser. Nasser is based on Ali Abbas, but still a fictional character created for the film. It is quite obvious that Nasser can’t cope with the camp life, despite the games and the filming. He is the character through whom we are introduced to this world; he is our point of view. Deshe aims to get us inside his head, his state of mind, and uses all the cinematic devices at his disposal to achieve that. This is not a documentary-style, realistic refugee drama; the filmmaking is as heightened as the characters’ emotional situation.

Nasser and his brother’s escape to Greece by boat ends with a tragic loss we’ll learn about later, and the young man can’t get over it. The sketches they film, the dreams or hallucinations he has, and the harsh reality they live in all get mixed up with each other, to the point that the film we watch, Xoftex, becomes this waking incubus we witness through Nasser’s mind. He is disoriented, and time and space around him always shift and bend like in the scientific educational videos he watches on YouTube. It gets increasingly harder to distinguish between what is real and what is simply a dream.

Deshe’s camera (he doubled as the director of photography) is constantly on the move and sometimes floating, framing Nasser in corners or distorted environments, using the light also as a mean of oppressing his character in this inescapable world. He sometimes cuts the same scene and same line of dialogue in different locations, to disrupt continuity, the standard element of filmmaking to convince its audience of reality. The soundtrack and the music take us along in this nightmarish mood, sometimes even attacking us, just like the refugees’ conditions. The effective VFX work also deserves praise, and with all its maximized technical aspects Xoftex is a strong directorial achievement.

But we wouldn’t care for a simple technical achievement. Noaz Deshe did volunteer work in refugee camps before. People like Ali Abbas became part of this creative process with their own experiences, and the actors brought their own personal histories into it, inevitably. Because this is the defining crisis of the era. Millions of displaced people, facing discrimination each and every day, feared and unwanted like aliens, trying to come up with new dreams for tomorrow now that their lives are destroyed. But those dreams are turned into nightmares. By the states. By the policies. By other human beings. And the authenticity of all its stories and characters gives Xoftex its true punching power.