The Other Side of Hope (2017)
Most of us have never had a ‘refugee experience’. Many have read about it and some take a close interest, but usually it is something that happens to others in distant places. The confusingly labelled comedy-drama The Other Side of Hope (2017)is remarkably effective in bringing the refugee experience right into our face. Once seen, it is hard to regard it as only happening to nameless people in faraway lands.
The narrative frame has a haphazard quality about it, as if the audience has stumbled upon a vantage point from which we can see two hopeless lives randomly collide. After finally walking out on his alcoholic wife, dour Finnish salesman Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen) throws the sale proceeds from his business into a high-stakes poker game and makes a small fortune. After buying a run-down restaurant, he encounters Khaled (Sherwan Haji) sheltering among his rubbish bins. The Iraqi refugee had arrived in Helsinki via a coal-cargo ship while fleeing for his life. Refused refugee status and held for deportation by heartless Finnish authorities, Khaled is stateless, friendless, and homeless. Waldemar offers him work and shelter and tries to help him locate his sister who became lost while trying to escape the Syrian Civil War.
The story contains little humour. Its ‘comedy-drama’ label comes from totally deadpan performances that verge on absurdism, aided by a dark, almost noir filming palette. Most of the sub-titled dialogue is delivered without expression, which emphasises the heartless world into which the refugee is pushed. Dramatic situations that cry out for emotional expression are left cold, and it is this denial of the natural that most hits the viewer. For example, when the Finnish immigration official interviews Khaled for his refugee status, the honesty and sadness of his story are overwhelming yet not a trace of emotion is evident in either interviewer or interviewee. When Khaled is asked what he wants, the depth of his despair is in his words, not their expression: “I do not matter”.
An element of the unexpected can add to the enjoyment of a movie, but perhaps not in this case. If you expect an entertaining comedy-drama from a nation well-known for its dark quirky humour you may be disorientated and possibly disappointed. The intention of this film is not to entertain, but to confront, inform, and engage. As global refugee problems continue unabated, The Other Side of Hope does not offer comfort or clarity, and this is reflected in its open-ended conclusion. The film’s major achievement is how it makes us look directly into the face of the hopeless and hear the voice of the dispossessed. It leaves a heavy footprint.
Director: Aki Kaurismáki
Stars: Sakari Kuosmanen, Sherwan Haji