If Waad al-Kateab‘s incredible documentary For Sama gave us the pure, immediate horror of the war that ripped Syrian apart, then Nezouh is a dreamier, more nebulous, even hopeful affair. Soudade Kaadan‘s second feature sees the war through the eyes of a young girl, and has a corresponding restless energy. With a dynamism that almost bulges the walls that confine our heroine, Nezouh negates overt carnage in favour of a subjective, magical-realist point of view. It saps some urgency from the narrative, but more than compensates with its central family and their almost comical attempts to maintain the structures and rituals of normality.

Zeina (a spirited, puckish Hala Zein) is, along with her mother and father, one of the few remaining inhabitants of their neighbourhood in Damascus. The surrounding area lies in ruins and the family have a lucky escape when a shell rips off part of the side of their apartment and blows a hole in their roof. As dad Mutaz (a bullish Samer al Masri) and mum Hala (Kinda Alloush) argue over whether to stay and face more shelling and the arrival of the army, or go and face a real unknown future, Zeina daydreams and forms a sweet bond with Amer (Nizar Alani), an aspiring filmmaker who fuels Zeina’s yearning for the wider world.

Nezouh roughly translates as ‘displacement’, and seems to refer not only to the residents that have left (just a few of the roughly 14 million since 2011), but to reality itself. The oafish Mutaz tries to maintain the quotidian, shoring up the gaping holes with sheets, and impotently asserting his paternal control. Hala is far more pragmatic, bristling at Mutaz’s bizarre insistence that things continue as before. He even tries to arrange a suitable marriage for Zeina with a young fighter. Meanwhile Zeina is treating the hole in her bedroom ceiling like a portal to another world, imagining skimming stones across a sky magically transformed to shimmering sea, and liaising with the charming Amer.

Tonally it feels like John Boorman‘s Blitz-set Hope and Glory, albeit shorn of the slightly nostalgic gloss of that classic. But in the attempt to depict family life trying to prevail in an previously unfathomable context, and with all the coming of age elements included, Nezouh does come across as a contemporary cousin. There’s childhood fun amidst rubble, first crushes, a caring but fractious family unit. It’s all captured with grace, wit, and a surprisingly vibrant visual sensibility, leaning into the flights of fancy in which Zeina understandably finds refuge.

If anything, the film is determined to lavish attention on practically anything but the very real danger. Apart from the falling bombs at the beginning of the movie, the ever-present threat isn’t quite as pronounced as it could be. It’s clear Kaadan’s intention is to highlight topics such as living through trauma, the resilience of the family unit, masculinity, first love with the war a fractious and gritty canvas one which to wield many brushes. It just slightly lessens the impact of the family’s situation. The talk about further bombs, and the proximity of the soldiers, but then life continues ss before, leaving the film almost as a surreal, bizarrely airy chamber piece.

Yet, it’s a chamber piece filled with a yearning reach far beyond the negligible protection of its walls. And it’s so effective in its use of limited space that when there is a third act exodus it almost feels like an unwelcome disruption of the status quo, or an emergence from a chrysalis. The effect is surprisingly bitter sweet, which demonstrates how well Kaadan has painted these characters.

In selected cinemas from Fri 3 May 2024