Berlinale 2021 review: Copilot (Anne Zohra Berrached)

At the heart of Anne Zohra Berrached’s quietly devastating drama Copilot is a beautifully told love story, significant only in its very recognizable humanity: the fumbling flirting that turns into a lasting love affair between Asli (Canan Kir) and Saeed (Roger Azar). She is a German with Turkish roots, he is a Lebanese exchange student. Both are brought up in families with an emphasis on honour and shame; Asli is absolutely not supposed to court an Arab, and Saeed has to fulfill his family’s ambitions by becoming a dentist rather than a pilot.

Joined by a common desire to break with the yoke of expectations, they see in each other an opportunity to realize a self-made life in the seemingly unending optimism of late 1990s Europe, and they make a conscious decision to marry because they, quite simply, cannot live without each other. And yes, this is the kind of story where photogenic people walk along a beach, kiss passionately in the water, and fall in love. No one can tell these lovers what to do. No bonds of politics, religion or past can stop them from choosing each other.

But something happens. And while lesser directors would have fallen for the temptation to turn this story of radicalization and division in ideology and faith into a sensationalistic and opulent melodrama, Berrached economically insists on keeping the drama relational. It is a clever but daring approach, because in painting a believable image of a woman who unwillingly became a terrorist’s wife it is necessary to portray the man she fell in love with as an identifiable, relatable human as well. And while the film never aims to explain the deeper mechanisms of Saeed’s personal involvement with terror organizations, we are watching him through the eyes of the woman who made a deliberate decision to love him. Having already broken with tradition with her husband, she is suddenly left by him and has to take several steps in defining who she is now and what the marriage is about. As Saeed fades from the story, Kir’s Asli steps into her own. To her, he was not a monster. Sure, they had their problems as a couple, but what couple does not have issues to deal with? Asli goes on living her life, accepting in her own way the comings and goings of the man she loves because of, exactly, love.

In the end, the reality (and suspicion) in all of its horror is confirmed to Asli. All the signs were pointing in one tragic direction alone, as it turned out. The final scene is in its ambiguity ice cold and at the same time fiercely loyal towards a character in whom the film has invested all of its compassion. Asli is left to her own devices; she must judge herself. As we watch her towards the end, alone in an elevator, we are invited to look at her with discerning eyes as well. But it is no longer as easy as it might have been to label her gullible, naïve, or dumb.

Christopher Aoun’s cinematography, like Berrached’s storytelling, is attentive and direct, and serves the fairly straightforward story well. In her third feature film, just like in the award-winning 24 Wochen and Two Mothers, Berrached finds the human story in one of the most hot-button issues of the 21st millennium’s Europe. Her remarkable talent for harnessing this material reaches a new peak in her filmography with Copilot.