Life in occupied Palestine is always going provide an emotive base for a documentary, and this is certainly the case in Tone Andersen’s When the Boys Return (2012). Taking as its focus a group of teenagers that are repeatedly imprisoned by Israeli forces for crimes such as ‘throwing stones’, the doc aims to explore the effect that this incarceration has on them and their families. The startling opening shot features guerilla footage of a community under fire, with boys forcibly taken from their homes whilst their mothers wail for clemency. This intensity dissipates in the ensuing hour, and is never quite as stirring as it might have been.
Andersen’s premise is to follow the lives of several boys as they try to reconvene their lives after time in an Israeli prison. Welcomed home with tears and cheers they are part of a troop of a dozen young Palestinian youngsters – all of whom have been arrested at some point – offered a course of group therapy. Here, and at their homes, the therapist-come-interviewer discusses their experiences and tries to elicit some reflection from them regarding the consequences of their time locked away. Through these interviews the disaffection of these youths becomes immediately apparent with cases of self-harm and total seclusion. Mohammad Jamil candidly speaks about what it was like to be arrested and how he feels now.
There are touching moments within the framework of When the Boys Return that give a glimpse of the effect this has, particularly poignantly in the case of Hamze. He has two older brothers and can only recall one night, just before Eid, where his mother was blessed with the company of all three at the same time. The next day, one of his brother’s was taken away. His sole aim is to become the first member of his family to pass his exams – his brother was arrested weeks before his finals and thus ever graduated.
Moments like these manage to inject proceedings with more resonance, as does a sequence in which the boys recount their ambitions: pilot, nurse, lawyer, etc. Sadly, the rest of the film feels a little removed in comparison. This is perhaps an unfortunate symptom of their subject matter – teenagers are prone to reticence without having been affected by prison – but it does mean that Andersen’s When the Boys Return never manages to tug on the heartstrings as one might expect or hope.
When the Boys Return screens as part of the DocHouse strand at London’s Rich Mix Cinema on 16 May, 2013. For more info, visit dochouse.org.