By Randall Rowe, PhD Student, Department of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Cultures
On January 19th, the Global Mobility project hosted a film screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts of The Other Side of Hope (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 2017). This film depicts the experience of a Syrian refugee who has fled to Finland to apply for asylum. One of the protagonists, Khaled, has encountered carnage in his home city of Aleppo, was separated from his sister when fleeing across the Turkish border, and was assaulted by Polish neo-Nazis. Upon arriving in Finland via a shipping container, Khaled meets Wikström, a middle-aged man who has a recent windfall of cash from a successful poker game. Their first meeting occurs after Khaled has escaped a detention center (after being denied refuge and sentenced to deportation) and is apprehended and jumped by racist thugs of the “Finnish Liberation” movement. When Wikström encounters an injured Khaled outside of his restaurant, a fight between the two protagonists breaks out and comically ends rather quickly with Khaled working in Wikström’s restaurant. The unlikely gang of coworkers come to accept Khaled into their ranks, and they band together to help bring Khaled’s sister to Finland. After successfully arriving in Finland from Lithuania, Khaled’s sister seeks asylum at the police station just as Khaled had done. Indeed, many migrants leave their countries of origin with the hope that their situation will improve, but a migrant’s journey is often long and treacherous. The Other Side of Hope attempts to address the migration experience through Khaled’s story of uncertainty, disappointment, and – finally – reunion.
Khaled, in a somewhat typical situation for refugees, is subjected to long periods of waiting that often end in rejection. He seeks asylum through the official channels and is then assigned to a detention facility, where he waits for his fate to be handed to him by a court. Khaled flees the facility and ends up in Wikström’s restaurant because he is left with no other recourse after being denied asylum. The arrival of Khaled among the ranks of Wikström’s employees facilitates a change for the restaurant. Tired of waiting for customers to wander into the restaurant, Wikström and the others attempt (unsuccessfully) to change the menu and atmosphere in order to drum up business. It is as if both protagonists were waiting for one another to improve each other’s lives.
(Prof. Vera Brunner-Sung (left) and Prof. Johanna Sellman (right) discuss the film with the audience)
After the film there was a lively Q & A session with Prof. Vera Brunner-Sung (Department of Theatre, the Global Mobility Project) and Prof. Johanna Sellman (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures). One of the audience members remarked that the depiction of white Europeans in the film was mostly positive, with the exception of the militant nationalists and the apathetic bureaucrats of the court system. Prof. Brunner-Sung added to the conversation by asking if the film occupied a gray area between the tropes of the White Savior and White Helper. The Other Side of Hope seems to attempt to subvert the White Savior trope by omitting gratuitous scenes of victimization and by foregrounding Khaled’s self-determination.
The film, though tragic at times, is largely whimsical and funny. The editing, use of compact spaces, and the “cleanliness of the mise en scène,” in the words of Prof. Brunner-Sung, work together to communicate complex emotional aspects of the film to the viewer without language at all. Aki Kaurismäki moves the viewer from a comedy to a tragedy to a melodrama back to a comedy. Ultimately, this conveys instability to the viewer and creates a sense of exhaustion. By highlighting this chaos, Aki Kaurismäki attempts to communicate Khaled’s experience as a migrant seeking asylum.
The film also attempts to address questions about Finland’s “myth of homogeneity,” as pointed out by Prof. Sellman, and the wave of nationalism in Finland and around the globe. The police arrive at the restaurant for a routine inspection and the employees quickly hide Khaled in the bathroom. Instead of finding Khaled and inquiring about his national origins, the police officer asks a Finnish employee to produce his identification because the employee doesn’t “look Finnish” – an ironic moment that speaks to the ways that racism works to undermine the goals of law enforcement.
The film also depicts Finland’s linguistic heterogeneity, as well as the social functions that these languages can serve. The fluidity of language choice captures the negotiation of self that many refugees must go through when seeking asylum.
Indeed, much of this film reflects the reality of migrants’ lives. This is what makes the film grim viewing, in spite of its whimsy. Khaled has been forced to flee from his home in Aleppo, Syria because of violence. He loses contact with his sister because of violence and chaos at the Turkish border. He must secretly travel to Finland in a shipping container full of coal from Gdansk, Poland due to further threats of violence, and finally, it is violence that brings him to Wikström and his subsequent employment. The streak of violence in Khaled’s life does not end when he leaves Syria. Khaled’s experience, crafted brilliantly by Kaurismäki, raises the question: what is the other side of hope?