The fact that March 13 marked three years since the pandemic began is almost bewildering to accept. There’s so much left to process still, all the changes that the world experienced in those days and months in isolation. To arrive at a conclusion on how it affected and permanently changed lives forever is never the best idea. In Ida Høeberg and Sofie Melin’s insightful documentary feature Away (Udebane), which had its World Premiere at the 2023 Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, the spotlight is on a talented young basketball player Julianna Okosun, who sets out as an international student to pursue her dreams in an American University just as the pandemic is about to gets its grip on the world. (Also read: Seven Winters in Tehran review: Chilling story of a woman wronged by society and government)
Presented through the recordings of Okusun herself, as she films her day to day life in present, Away begins with a genuine sense of revelation. The tone of the film actively takes on the vibe of familiarity with hand-held camera recordings, where the audience is with Okusun all along the way. She’s confident and talented, and knows that she’s one of the best young players of Denmark. After high school she has her goal set for college, where she wants to pursue her passion of basketball further in an American University. She gets the offer from Marquette University, and lands in the U.S. This is where the story or Away takes off- as Okusun has to get a grip of her surroundings that aren’t as familiar as home anymore. The cultural shock apart, its a new place where she’s mostly by herself in the beginning of March 2020. Her training practices are limited, and she keeps the flow going with her daily exercise routine. Yet, as the pandemic fastens its grip, staying in isolation in a country far away from home becomes an increasingly terrifying task. “Its 100% the hardest thing I’ve ever tried,” she says.
The self-filmed footage that unfolds in Away, refuses to add any shortcuts to the experiences of Okusun during her tough days. She is answerable to herself every single day, reorganizing her room to feel more homely, drawing, attending journalism classes online, and talking to her mother on the phone. She confesses how it’s not just the staying all by herself that is tough, but also the requirement to stay fit and focused physically and mentally for the game that slowly becomes like a shadow lurking somewhere behind her. The occasional practice sessions become her only escape, where she draws in as much as she wants.
Ida Høeberg and Sofie Melin’s gaze also positions their subject in the midst of some definitive socio-cultural shifts in America. At one point, Okusun herself admits the shift in perspectives and appearances in the space that she inhabits- where she falls in the category of a “black woman” in America, a position that never occurred to her back in Denmark. Okusun is also perplexed after watching the presidential debate ahead of the elections, between Trump and Biden and expresses her feelings about the changes.
In making space for these moments, Away is demonstrating an urgent and specific perspective about a spectrum of events from the individual point of view. It is neither an investigative look at the micro-aggressions from a personal point of view nor is it an expository approach to document the effects of the pandemic. The influence lies somewhere in between, where the truth begins to construct itself with the development of the story- the history of realness is set in motion.
Even as the return back during the concluding parts of Away turns the documentary into a predictable acknowledgement of sorts, the effect is still as resonant and perceptive. Away is an unlikely and moving coming-of-age documentary that wears its sleeves with empathy and grace. There’s no one way to define one experience; they speak for all of us.