Dennis Harvey shot I Must Away over seven years. The project grew out of a couple of shorts he made observing and interviewing street vendors in Madrid and then in Santiago, Chile.
This resulting longer work follows three subjects, and Harvey himself, as they move from country to country in search of work, family and refuge.
We first meet Hashem. Formerly a politician in Bangladesh, he has fled to Spain following political upheaval. He now sells beer by the can to passersby.
Harvey shows Hashem’s life and routine through a smartphone lens. The technique is no-frills. At times, the edits feel like they’re done with the most basic “trim and splice” camera app. But this style affords Harvey a level of intimacy with his subjects that you wouldn’t get with a more conventional documentary style.
In many sequences, the image looks to have been deliberately zoomed in. A shot of Hashem’s head takes up nearly the entire frame. Remove the subtitles and the establishing shots and a lot of I Must Away looks like a projected FaceTime call.
The bare-bones nature of the filmmaking speaks to an earnestness in Harvey as a director and as a person. He is drawn to subjects through observing their work, but he soon gets involved in their lives in an active way. Hashem, the juice seller Alicia, and later, Ali, move from subjects to friends in the blink of an eye.
When Harvey’s girlfriend Mina takes a job at the Swedish consulate in Santiago he follows. And so continues a rambling journey from country to country, pulled by love and friendship. In Chile, Harvey gets to know Alicia, who sells orange juice near the train station.
The strongest material in I Must Away is slice-of-life actuality. Times when we too observe and are fascinated by the routines of Harvey’s subjects and friends.
Alicia collects oranges in the very early morning to prepare for work the next day. Mina, Harvey’s girlfriend, rehearses a dance routine. Ali scopes out shooting locations, and so on.
The unbridled enthusiasm in Harvey’s point-and-shoot method of filmmaking keeps I Must Away engaging even as it struggles to wrangle years of footage into a structure.
The film uses at least three framing devices. Title cards, titles to show us the passing of time or to announce the next destination on Harvey’s journey, and narration reading aloud letters that Harvey has sent to his grandmother back home in Ireland.
Some of these devices fare better than others. The title cards announcing the beginning of a new act work well thanks largely to the use of Irish folk music, in contrast to the far-flung surroundings that Harvey finds himself in.
The narration worked less well for most of the picture because we have little context for his grandmother and her situation. Harvey is eventually able to make the narration work through a visit home to the family farm in Galway.
One sequence focuses on a photograph of his grandmother while a recording of her voice plays on Harvey’s phone. The camera goes in and out of focus on the photograph as Harvey’s hand shakes.
The phone attempts to work its magic on the photo but the autofocus obscures things further. Eventually, man and machine settle and his grandmother comes into focus. From this point, the narration comes into focus for the audience as well.
For all of his subjects, and for Harvey himself, there’s push and pull from their home to the possibility of a new home. Harvey’s reason for moving was economic, but the world is a different place for him than it is for Hashem, Alicia or Ali.
For Harvey the world is flat and wide open. Far-flung destinations are a hop, skip and a jump cut away. Ali, who fled Afghanistan and then Iran before arriving in Sweden, befriends Harvey at a filmmaking co-op in Stockholm.
After four years in Sweden, Ali has been informed that he is being refused asylum. Four years, as Harvey puts it, is “enough time to learn the language, act in the national theatre, and fall in and out of love” and still, that time leads Ali to more uncertainty and a desperate trip with Harvey to Paris to seek asylum in France.
Their journey is shown to us in quick shots from Harvey’s phone. Out of train windows and moving cars. Through this montage, and through his journeying with Ali, Harvey is able to flatten the world for his friend as well.
Ali’s crisis would be worse still were he not travelling with someone for whom much of the world is accessible. Harvey’s Irish passport opens more borders than any danger or suffering could. It’s something that Harvey is very much aware of.
The closing credits of the film are preceded by a bibliography of further reading on borders and migration.
Postscripts speak to favourable outcomes for the three featured subjects. But, the reality, even in the context of the film itself, is that there are countless others who find themselves in the limbo of immigration systems or the snaking tent villages that Harvey and Ali walk through in France.