Aki Kaurismäki has produced his second explicitly political film. In “the other side of hope” current events break into the director’s closed universe. This has an inspiring effect, finds Phil Butland.
For over three decades, Aki Kaurismäki has been making inimitable films about the everyday life of Finnish working-class people. Made on a low budget with 35mm film, his films provide a refreshing antidote to effects-laden Hollywood super hero blockbusters.
The actors who regularly appear in Kaurismäki’s films do not look like film stars. The clothes that they wear, the music that they listen to and the cars that they drive belong to another era. The films embody a nostalgia for a lost world which, if it ever existed, has long been abolished by modern capitalism.
In his films, Kaurismäki uses a colour palette similar to that of the painter Edward Hopper. His films also share the preoccupation with alienation and quiet despair of Hopper’s pictures. Just like a Hopper painting, a Kaurismäki film describes the daily routine of normal people who somehow come across as slightly alien.
In 2011, Kaurismäki produced maybe his most realistic – and probably his most explicitly political film. In “Le Havre”, a cobbler tries to save an African refugee child. Six years later, he has released the second part of a planned “port city trilogy”. Like its predecessor, “The Other Side of Hope” is both a cry against the injustice that refugees experience in modern Europe, and also a celebration of the solidarity of ordinary people.
Khaled (Sherwan Haji in his first film role) lands in Helsinki in a coal freight ship – hopefully the last stage in his escape from Aleppo. His parents’ corpses lie in the ruins of his home town and he has lost his sister at a border control. He has come to Finland by chance after hiding in the ship from Polish racists.
Immediately on landing he registers with the police – against the advice of a local black worker. The police examine his case, and inform him that the Finnish state considers Aleppo to be a safe city. Khaled must report to the authorities and is to be deported on the following day.
Wikström’s (Sakari Kuosmanen) flight is much more banal. He leaves his alcohol-dependent wife and his job as a shirt and tie salesman, and successfully gambles his money in a poker game. With his profits he buys a restaurant from which he tries – largely unsuccessfully – to interest his clientele in first Finnish, then Japanese and finally Indian food.
In the first hour of the film the fates of Khaled and Wikström are described separately. But when Khaled flees the authorities, he sleeps in an outhouse of Wikström’s restaurant. Their first meeting ends in a fight, but soon Wikström and his strange employees – doorman Calamnius (Ilkka Koivula), cook Nyrhinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) and waitress Mirja (Nuppu Koivu) – are hiding Khaled from the police. Wikström even organizes a fake identity card for Khaled.
Such gestures of solidarity are normal for the inhabitants of Kaurismäki’s universe, whose films always show his trust in the basic decency of people – in particular poor people. While politicians and the media stir up hatred against refugeees, Kaurismäki is convinced that solidarity will overcome such hatred.
One might think that Kaurismäki’s timeless, unreal universe would not be quite right for representing the desperate existence of a refugee. But ultimately, the dissonance helps to show us the craziness the time in which we are living.
The old-fashioned bureaucracy of the police, where the officials still type their reports two-fingered on an old typewriter, are part of the past – as are the cartoon Nazis of the “Finland Liberation Army”, who threaten Khaled. We see another past in the restaurant with its jukebox, LPs, and Jimi Hendrix poster. This past is more comfortable, but it will also eventually disappear.
It is Khaled and his Iraqi friend Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon) – apparently the only mobile phone owner in Helsinki – who embody the future. They are not presented as passive victims, but as living people with agency. The combination of this capacity for action with the instinct for solidarity and the pure humanity of Wikström and his co-workers creates a force that can change the world.
What is the other side of hope? Is it fear and despair, or is it the possibility that our hopes and dreams can actually be realitzed? The film leaves this questions open – not least in its ambiguous ending. But it is absolutely clear on which side the director is on.
Kaurismäki himself has said, “With this film I want to – as far as it is possible – break apart the European assumptions in which refugees are either exclusively victims who deserve our pity or merely presumptuous economic migrant … It is a film that unscrupulously wants to change the views and opinions of its audience by manipulating their feelings … An otherwise almost realistic film about certain human destinies in the world in which we live today.”
At this year’s Berlinale, “The Other Side of Hope” deservedly won the silver bear. From March 30th it will be in German cinemas. If you want to see a good political film with humour and excellent music, should definitely give it a go.