Refugees are slowly creeping into European cinema. Last year saw Gianfranco Rosi winning here in Berlin for his powerful documentary Fire at Sea, and this year it’s Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki hitting the Berlinale with comedy-drama The Other Side of Hope, a humorous look at Finland coping with the immigration issue. There is more to the film than its deadpan surface though, as Kaurismäki manages to pack quite a lot of drama (without a lot of drama, of course, because this is Kaurismäki after all) in the short runtime, and to give a poignant look at the struggle refugee immigrants have to endure in what became their new home country by fate, not necessarily choice.
Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian refugee, manages to reach Helsinki on a freight ship. He has already been all over Europe illegally, searching for the sister that he lost sight of at the Hungarian border, but now he wants to seek asylum in Finland so he can travel the continent more freely. After spending some time in a refugee center, the Finnish authorities deny his request for asylum, and intend to send him back to Aleppo. Khaled chooses illegality, and finds himself a spot behind a restaurant owned by Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen).
This Wikström is a salesman in men’s shirts and ties, but in a severe bout of midlife crisis, he leaves his wife (with typical Finnish theatrics, which is to say none) and puts all his money in a high-stakes poker game. His skills at the table turn out to be prolific, as he wins a fortune, which he promptly uses to pursue a long-held dream: to own a restaurant. The place he buys is quite frankly a dump, with matching staff. It’s in his capacity as proprietor that he finds a young Syrian refugee hiding out behind his place of business. He offers Khaled a job, and when a friend from the refugee center shows up with good news about Khaled’s sister, Wikström helps him get her to Finland as well. But fate does not only have good things in store for Khaled…
The style of The Other Side of Hope is unmistakably that of Aki Kaurismäki: minimalistic, laconic, static nighttime shots, production design that makes it hard to place the film in time, deadpan acting in both comedic and dramatic moments, the odd non-sequitur in the dialogue. But what it also shares with the Finnish auteur’s other films is its beating humanistic heart, and this is most apparent in the approach to Khaled’s side of the story. Kaurismäki often shows the baffling logic and rigidity of authorities, as well as his own version of what Rosi’s documentary also tackled last year: there is a rinse-and-repeat pattern to the whole refugee crisis, where there is always another human being on the doorstep in need of help. The problem exists no matter what, and The Other Side of Hope says that it is left to the mercy of regular people to help out the needy.
The film provides substantial social commentary under a comedic guise, and it would sell the story short to just focus on its gags. But to brush them aside would be to rip out Kaurismäki’s special touch. Another competition entry today, the documentary Beuys about the late German contemporary artist of the same name, has its subject asking an interviewer, “Do you want to have a revolution without laughter?” Kaurismäki seems to take these words to heart, and in the style of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (of Naked Gun fame), he infuses the film with several laugh-out-loud moments that rarely have anything to do with the topic, but show that even if the world is burning, there is still cause for laughter. The Other Side of Hope is a peculiar entry in the budding genre of refugee stories, yet its message and urgency should not be underestimated. Aki Kaurismäki may have a funny way of saying it, but he is urging us to reach out.