“I don’t understand your humour” Sherwan Haji’s Syrian refugee Khaled tells one of his Finnish co-workers in Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope. It is a telling sentiment that I shared at the start of the Finnish auteurist’s latest film, with his characteristically deadpan style an acquired taste. At times he is too stylistic, threatening to take all the energy and emotion out of the film with his static framing, highly and coolly composed sets and the restrained performances of his cast. However, as the crossing stories of Khaled and wily Finnish businessman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) develop, Kaurismäki reveals his sensitivities as both writer and director.The Other Side of Hope is a nuanced account of Finland and the wider Scandanavian response to the current refugee crisis: from bureaucratic indifference and nationalist racism to openness and solidarity. By approaching one of the predominant moral crises of our time in his unique style, Kaurismäki creates a unexpectedly stirring and self-critical piece for this politically turbulent period.
Arriving in Finland after a harrowing journey across Europe, Khaled emerges from a coal heap aboard a freighter under the cover of darkness. Alone, unable to speak the language, weary and traumatised, he begins to search for sanctuary while also looking for his only living relative, sister Miriam. He understands all too well that as a Syrian refugee his arrival in Finland will be fraught with difficulties: “No one wants to see us, we cause problems” he tells fellow refugee Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon) after they strike up a friendship at the Immigration Centre. This attitude is soon witnessed in the businessman Wikström, who while driving his distinct (and maudlin) classic car, crosses paths with the dishevelled Khaled and drives past him without comment.
It is a significant contrast to Kaurismäki’s concerned protagonist in his 2011 film Le Havre, where the former French bohemian Marcel (Andre Wilms) almost immediately assists the young Gabonese immigrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) to evade the French authorities. Wikström is a sour, selfish man who attempts to make a lucrative enterprise out of a gaudy, identity-confused restaurant, after coldly leaving his wife and getting the proceeds from his clear talent at poker. The two stories of refugee and national run in parallel and soon cross back into one another, as Khaled tries to avoid deportation by taking up a job illegally in Wikström’s restaurant. Exploited by his new employer, barely avoiding racist Finnish nationalists and immigration police, Khaled decides to find a way out of the country and make a last desperate attempt to contact his sister.
The deadpan style and tragicomic tone of Kaurismäki is surprisingly effective and engaging here. Unlike the nostalgic optimism of Le Havre, Kaurismäki uses this impassive approach to both send up the wry, downbeat humour of the Finnish and depict the precarious lives of the refugees, emphasising the differences in the two situations. Kaurismäki also reveals the hubris and complacency of the Finnish citizenry and state, with the Wikström’s staff being a particularly self-serving, motley crew that are a considerable contrast to the quaint, kindly proletarians in Le Havre. The settled populace are not treated kindly here, with a mixture of active brutal racists (akin to the real-life fascist Nordic Resistance Movement) and the bureaucratic automatons that can deport a man back to the city they witness being obliterated on their television screens (unfortunately reflecting an actual perception in the Finnish Immigration Service that Iraq, Syria and Somalia are safe to return refugees too).
Yet there is some wry, farcical humour brilliant performed by the restaurant staff, leading to hilarious sequences where they try to deceive their new boss or try cooking up ‘imitation’ sushi. The comedy is always at their expense, however. Kuosmanen creates an unsympathetic protagonist in the lined-faced and slick-haired Wikström but still retains some humour from his clear foolish nature. ‘You might be wiser, but I am older’ he pronounces to his fellow staff, delivered in such a way that recalls Kaurismäki’s own dry demeanour. Wikström doesn’t entirely embody the paternalistic, white saviour that Kaurismäki put forward in Le Havre, as his ‘helping’ Khaled are born out of capitalising on his clearly desperate status, but he is offered a chance at redemption through it.
The liberal paternalism is also tempered by sensitively depicting and developing the perspective of the refugees themselves. Unlike Miguel’s Idrissa, who remains virtually withdrawn and silent for most of Le Havre, Khaled and Mazdak discuss the hopes and futilities of their status, how to survive in their temporary home but are allowed some levity. “Should I smile or cry?” asks Khaled after Mazdak advises him that he shouldn’t look too happy or too sad for his supposed benefactors. Its a revealing conversation that interrogates how refugees should act or want to be seen by the settled populace that can only tolerate an image of the labelled individual, rather than empathise with the human being. Kaurismäki also uses this impassive style to emphasises the indifference, the waiting, the anxiety and trauma found within the Immigration Centre. The country-blues band (for Kaurismäki can’t help but punctuate his films with live music), who fluctuate in and out of the film with their irritatingly ironic songs, are contrasted with Khaled playing a tune on a buzuq for those in the dormitory: a small reminder of home, the familiar and the lost. Haji is really the convincing heart of this film, he brings across the sincerity, pain and humour in Khaled despite the stylised, mannered performances Kaurismäki clearly desires to get from his actors.
One could ask whether such a stylistic response distances or demeans the seriousness and devastation of lives in the ongoing refugee crisis. However, Kaurismäki’s mundane style does have the paradoxical and peculiar advantage of undercutting a romanticisation of the tragic circumstances depicted and alluded to. In the hands of a lesser director, one perhaps more prone to sentimentality or self-righteousness (like Spielberg, Piccioni, Eastwood or Gibson), The Other Side of Hope could have been overwrought and portentous- losing sight of the issues for the sake of moralising or merely emoting. Kaurismäki takes a different but more interesting approach, albeit without grappling the deeper root causes of this crisis. The Other Side of Hope may not be for everybody, but perhaps more than most Western writers and directors today, Kaurismäki attempts to explore the nuances on both sides of this crisis while reinforcing the simple need for human decency, dignity and empathy in such a way that might perplex, even agitate, you in the cinema, but lingers to be considered long afterward.