Berlinale 2021 review: Any Day Now (Hamy Ramezan)

The Mehdipour family are in the process of claiming asylum, having left Iran for Finland. We don’t know what journey has gotten them to where they are, nor why they first left their country; our understanding of their situation is impressionistic. The family of four (a boy, a girl, and their parents) live in a single room in a facility locked and curfewed at night. Despite being dressed with soft furnishings, the room has an iron door and the corridors are gated; this is a loosely disguised prison building.

Any Day Now is a semi-autobiographical film about the migrant experience by the debut filmmaker Hamy Ramezan, and while it doesn’t diminish the realities and challenges of those who have left their homes for something better, it’s clear, from the first lyrical shot to the last, that Ramezan has other preoccupations.

In recent years, the collapse of the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan states has created one of the largest forced migrations in world history, and the prevalence of smartphones and cheaper recording tools has meant access to a wealth of firsthand experiences, creating some of the most vivid documentaries of our time. Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow (2016), Joshua Bennet and Taylor Tippon’s Sky and Ground (2018), as well as Waad Al-Kateab’s widely seen For Sama (2019), use the documentary format to create a vérité watching experience that filmmakers attempting the same with actors, sets, and scripts simply can’t match. That’s not to say there isn’t cinematic drama to be produced from the migrant experience. Ramezan himself cut his directorial teeth on short films about a migrant woman escaping a violent relationship and homelessness through war (2014’s Listen and Paratiisin avaimet), but there are challenges in matching the authenticity of the documentary experience that Any Day Now bypasses with such gentle intent. The film feels quite different from many others and is the better for it. Despite its incarcerated setting and constant threat of deportation, this film is steadfastly a series of love letters: to the power of family, to people and their kindness, to youth; and it is very certainly a love letter to the recuperative and entrancing power of Finland itself – presented here as a near-paradise.

Yes, the Mehdipours are trapped, but the film dwells instead on what simple joys they extract from their situation – parties, dancing (even quite splendidly at one point, silent dancing!), games and friendships. In the daytime they visit their friends Helena and Onni, an elderly and affectionate couple immersed in nature; at nighttime they share a warming social bond with the people around them. I cannot remember a film in which the consolations of kindness were so vivid – nor can I remember a film that, for example, gave such gentle attention to the act of waking a family in the morning. This is vérité of a different kind. So many filmmakers equate truthful storytelling with grim dejection, but why shouldn’t two drunk men find a banana hilarious? Why shouldn’t a boy nonchalantly wear a dress on his first day of school, only to find himself complimented by another student you might expect to bully him? As a first-time filmmaker, one rather gets the impression that Ramezan has carefully inventoried his life’s sweetest experiences, ready to replay them on the screen. He says so himself in interviews – highlighting how central human interconnection is to his idea of what cinema can achieve. With his first film, he’s already proven himself a wonderful observer of human frailty transformed to strength and a great director of actors. Many filmmakers could take lessons from Any Day Now.

The acting is superb. Unequivocally so. Shahab Hosseini is a popular actor in Iran and here is deft and charming as an amiably roguish but solid father. Most of the rest of the cast are first-time actors, which is extraordinary considering how wildly luminous Shabnam Ghorbani is as Mahtab, the mother. She is shining in this film, stealing every scene she is in. Western filmmakers should take note, here are two actors as easy on screen as any I’ve seen.

The cinematography by Arsen Sarkisiants is equally naturalistic, its use of shallow depth-of-field centering objects in the foreground – an alarm clock, an unearthed plant, and, as mentioned, a banana. No one shot is dedicatedly beguiling (though perhaps the view of two boys in a forest, or later kicking streetlamps, comes close), but the overall feel is assured and shifts comfortably from the confines of the facility to the great outdoors of trees, plants and rivers (a nature for which the film has great reverence). Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s work on Shirley is called to mind.

If there is a criticism, it is that the film is a little uneven. During the first twenty minutes, the parents feature as the main characters and it is very much emotionally an ensemble piece. But this shifts and the rest of the running time is a coming-of-age film about Ramin, the thirteen-year-old son: starting high school, his friendships, his connection to his adopted country and his status as translator of letters for his parents. Aran-Sina Keshvari in (again remarkably) his first role acts well in two languages, and conveys a great feeling of endearment for everything around him, tempered with the ennui of perhaps loving someplace too much and knowing it can be taken away. This is a semi-autobiographical tale and a good one, but while there is a uniqueness in the portrayal of the family as an ensemble being together no matter what, there is a familiarity in the story of a thirteen-year-old coming of age.

This is a stubbornly gentle film with no obvious conceit to hook in an audience; there is nothing tricky or newsworthy in it, and very few people will seek it out on the subject matter alone. But word of mouth, a good run on the festival circuit, and perhaps a more dedicated audience both in Finland and amongst the Iranian diaspora should, one hopes, mean people will see it and be moved by it. Any Day Now deserves an audience. It is a celebration of the quietly humane, neatly and delicately told on film.