The Refugee Crisis is one of the most divided issues of the present, a schism between right and left questioning immigration, borders and national identity, encapsulating fears of job security and terrorism. Amid recent events, from blocked travel bans from Muslim majority countries to terrorist attacks throughout the UK and Europe, these questions aren’t going away. Aki Kaurismäki is a singular voice in Finnish cinema, gaining international distribution and recognition where others fail. His style is distinctive, producing the most compelling film about the Refugee Crisis to date by blurring the lines of comedy.
Refugee Crisis cinema has largely been documentary: Fire at Sea (2016) evokes the neorealism of post-war Italian cinema, witnessing the arrival of refugees and national reaction. Series like Exodus: Our Journey to Europe follow refugees first-hand attempting to cross the Mediterranean and settle in Britain, shot with hidden cameras; online media like VICE provide in-depth coverage of what refugees go through. Béla Tarr responded through his exhibition Till the End of the World (2017) at the EYE Filmmuseum, combining photojournalism, multimedia elements and film sequences from his films, closing the distance between post-war migration and the present day. Amid political tensions, journalistic pieces like Welcome to Weimar offer our closest idea to what it means to be a refugee.
Kaurismäki immediately confronts us with the ridiculous: Khaled (Sherwan Haji) appears at port on a coal freighter, covered in black. His eyes peer out, wandering around the ship, noticing the captain in his own world, watching a puppet show on an old TV. Speaking to David Jenkins in Little White Lies #70, Kaurismäki cited the influence of Michael Powell. Powell’s WWII cinema touched upon the notion of the immigrant: in 49th Parallel (1941), Nazi sailors arriving in Newfoundland confront an agrarian Canada built by immigrants, otherised as outsiders. Arriving in Helsinki, Khaled asks for directions, without phone. Bathing in a public shower, combing his hair in a mirror, Khaled becomes one of us, dressed in crosshatched shirt; there is no distance. As Kaurismäki reflects:
In my young days everybody left Finland. One million went to the United States, one million went to Sweden and one-and-a-half million went to Australia. And this is what I’m thinking now. So when all us economical roaches are everywhere, how come we are so impolite now?
Whereas many documentaries and articles focus upon the journey, The Other Side of Hope is interested in arrival, integrating into European culture not at war but at peace. Rather than an abstract mass of refugees or statistics, Kaurismäki focuses upon a constructed personality embodying the crisis. Kaurismäki spent three months researching “every bloody article on the subject”, casting refugees he could not legally credit within the film.
Khaled’s journey is related through exposition, talking about being attacked by neo-Nazis in Gdansk as he hid in a ship bound for Helsinki. Khaled’s narrative is cyclical, a constant target of racism. Khaled escapes deportation, the dream of a refugee, hiding in a shower and breaking the back window, but he cannot escape discrimination. Called a “camel driver”, attacked at the bus stop; drenched in lighter fluid by thuggish far-righters at a bar; stabbed by one of the group in a car park, implausibly surviving. Kaurismäki avoids music, creating a minimalistic approach, never emotionalising events but allowing us to accept them as they are, without partisan bias: the refugee crisis is accepted as reality, without manipulation.
Khaled makes a case for his right to stay amid bureaucracy, kept in a cell by initially welcoming police; describe his experiences and elicit sympathy, every word recorded by tape. In trial, overshadowed by the EU and Finnish flag, Khaled is ordered repatriated, flown to Damascus and transported to Aleppo, told in emotionless tone his home is not dangerous. An unending routine: the judge swiftly orders the next refugee be brought in, likely to receive equal fate. We cut to a group of refugees in the Reception Centre, watching war-torn images on TV: hospitals destroyed, many people dead. Khaled is told home is safe, yet must return to this.
Khaled is kept at a Reception Centre, unable to sleep, embodying silence and emptiness. Identity becomes reduced to objects, lacking home and family: reading books or playing instruments in military-esque beds, little to pass time but a constant stream of cigarettes. Khaled lacks a mobile: a stretch, as mobiles are essential tools for refugees, coordinating with contacts and organising their transportation and arrival. Befriending Iraqi Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), differences forgiven, allows him use of his ancient brick of a mobile. Security has dissipated to constant instability. Khaled no longer a mechanic; Mazdak no longer a nurse. Mazdak cleans the metro for two months, spending most of the past year out of work, unable to allow his family to stay.
Finland’s dream becomes detached from reality: Khaled feels constant longing, wanting to be reunited with sister Miriam (Niroz Haji). Leaving Helsinki becomes just as difficult as arriving. Kaurismäki interrupts the film with street performers and country and blues music at the bar, as Khaled sits reflecting. As old music legends sing of the Lord and the land, we sense Khaled’s longing for his own land, Syria, in spite of hardship. Kaurismäki reminds us of the complexity of the crisis: the Reception Centre is diverse, refugees from Africa, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, some women in hijabs, others without, culture away from home. Asked of denomination in his interview, Khaled speaks of burying the prophet, but denies having no religion. Khaled relinquishes religious precepts, drinking beers with Mazdak, even as Mazdak dismisses an entire city of “nonbelievers”, attempting to integrate into secular culture.
Kaurismäki contrasts Khaled’s journey with shirt salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), following each move of a poker game gripped to our seats, winning a wad of euros; acquiring a restaurant, the Golden Pint, drawn from Kaurismäki’s own experience running Zetor in Helsinki. The Golden Pint is a joke, without any kitchen hygiene, serving plates of tinned sardines and potatoes. Wikström benefits from capitalism where Khaled cannot survive; refugee survival becomes defined by economic capability, only affording travel through life savings. As Robert F. Worth writes in The New York Times, the “constant pressure of war” in Syria has “left almost no room for a real economy”, its industrial centres decimated.
Khaled tries to find respite sleeping outside the Golden Pint, but finds compassion and manipulation in Wikström, giving Khaled under the radar work, a fake ID just barely concealing his identity. As officials initiate a security check, Khaled becomes the dog in the kitchen, hiding in the bathroom as the whirr of the vacuum cleaner continues on, still plugged in. Khaled’s bedroom becomes a mattress in a closet, surrounded by supplies; Miriam is even worse off, hiding in a compartment hidden beside the exhaust of a truck.
The Golden Pint attempts to appeal to Helsinki’s minority communities, its Japanese and Indian diasporas as its identity changes through poorly placed signs. Chefs learn recipes from books, adopting Japanese robes worn within the kitchen; a decorative golden cat; sushi bathed within ice cream scoops of wasabi sauce, substituted with haddock as their supplies run out. Kaurismäki gives no explanation: Japanese residents pile in in busloads, but leave in distress. The Golden Pint becomes an Indian restaurant, attempting to make a quick buck by covering every market.
Kaurismäki places anachronisms side-by-side with present reality, interested in the visual: the Golden Pint has a jukebox, looked over by a mural to Hendrix. Wikström’s vintage car sits in a car park of modern cars. As Khaled has his photograph taken by police, a DSLR sits next to a typewriter sitting next to a laptop sitting next to an old-fashioned lamp, measuring Khaled’s height with a tape measure.
Kaurismäki’s comedy is subdued, relying upon absurdity. Where other international comedies fail to penetrate cultural and language barriers, Kaurismäki’s dependence upon silence instead favours visual humour, creating a universal language used not for irreverence but social comedy. Kaurismäki conveys character through objects: Wikström leaving his wife is told through a pair of keys on the kitchen table and her ashtray filled to the brim with cigarettes. Through cinematographer Timo Salminen and his production design, Kaurismäki embodies the same world he began in the early 80s in its visual aesthetic: its distinctive yellow font, long shots, desaturated colours, worn down buildings and concrete. Rather than appeal to a fast news cycle, Kaurismäki creates a timeless narrative that will remain relevant through the generations, without lacking in specificity.