‘Xoftex’ Review: Noaz Deshe Returns With a Bold, Feverish Vision of Refugee Camp Survival

“Xoftex” is a name you might expect to find on a pharmacy shelf, to be taken only after consultation with your physician. In Noaz Deshe’s heady second feature, however, the title refers to an imagined refugee camp in Greece: a vast, purgatorial compound that has as numbing and disorienting an effect on its residents as the strongest prescription medication. Following a pair of Syrian brothers as they wait out the agonizing process of asylum application — passing the time by bickering, fantasizing about a better life in northern Europe, and shooting amateur movies — Deshe’s film strikingly captures a sense of passing time and personal stasis battling each other to a fraught draw, building to a freeform surrealism that gives “Xoftex” its own identity amid the recent wave of cinema centered on the migrant crisis.

The film’s stylistic singularity won’t come as a surprise to those who saw Deshe’s 2013 debut feature “White Shadow,” a kinetic study of albino persecution in Central Africa that won him the best first film prize at Venice. A multi-hyphenate who also works as an artist, composer and cinematographer — and duly takes writing, lensing, editing and music credits on his sophomore feature — Deshe picks up his filmmaking very much where he left off 11 years ago, again merging hard-edged realism with dreamily stylized mood-building, and addressing a tough, topical subject while avoiding issue-movie messaging. Audiences may be divided by the film’s arrhythmic storytelling and third-act plunge into outright, impressionistic disorder — but adventurous distributors should see its talking-point potential, while a main competition berth at Karlovy Vary will kick off a long festival run.

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“Xoftex” may be formally and structurally imposing, but it’s not a punishing watch, sliced through as it is with sharp, sometimes raucous gallows humor. Both the film’s script — by Deshe with Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali (“Fremont”) — and ensemble have been built from drama workshops and volunteer work carried out in Greek refugee camps between 2016 and 2019, thus feeling suitably authentic but not blandly generalized. A witty opening sequence introduces a collective of mostly Syrian and Palestinian asylum seekers in conversation, as they contemplate which European countries they might be sent to, for better or worse. “I need Paris, what will I do in Poland?” asks one. Asked why he’s so keen on Paris, he admits he has only the Eiffel Tower to go on. As the talk turns to which countries are susceptible to a surge in far-right, anti-migrant sentiment, young Syrian Nasser (Abdulrahman Diab, superb) points out that they’re vulnerable wherever they end up: “You hear Europe and you think human rights,” he says scornfully — a line that, given some recent political shifts on the Continent, cuts close to the bone.

Nasser has reason to be jaded. An opening title card informs us that, on average, asylum seekers in Greece have to wait between 12 and 18 months for a decision on their claim. Nasser and his older brother Yassin (Osama Hafiry) are on the high end of that scale, with no outcome immediately in sight, and their temporal sense is starting to fray. Individual days become as indistinguishable from each other as the numerous white prefab boxes that make up the camp, giving Xoftex the air of an industrial container yard rather than a human settlement. Marita Götz and Lea Walloschke’s production design makes continually inspired use of limited resources.

The same might be said for the short films that Nasser shoots on his cellphone, both to document the reality of life in the camp — where some residents have lost their minds, and others have entered a long-term, trauma-induced coma — and to provide some evidence of his own existence, which to him feels largely erased by the outside world. The films range from vérité everyday recordings to parody frontline newscasts from the war back home, but they all precede his most ambitious plan: to shoot a zombie horror film set entirely in Xoftex, stressing the point that unsettled refugee status is its own kind of living-dead liminality. Yassin contributes to the films too, though as his head-down pragmatism clashes with Nasser’s angry righteousness, the brothers spar more often than not. Yassin mockingly labels Nasser a “camp influencer,” while Nasser complains, “It should be illegal for relatives to collaborate in the arts.”

Sure enough, Nasser’s artistry gradually spins into his own private world — fantastical installations of uprooted trees and shattered mirrors — as Deshe’s filmmaking, too, takes leave of grounded realism. His mercurial cinematography, thrashing and restless for so much of the film, arrives at a kind of floating serenity, augmented by gleaming digital effects. “Xoftex” doesn’t flee reality, however. Its flights of fancy jut against harsh intrusions of real-world absurdism, where human lives are coldly compressed through the intricacies of E.U. asylum law, while refugee smugglers charge their victims 20 euros extra for a sprinkling of pepper to ward off attack dogs. Pick your poison, or stick with Xoftex.

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