Cannes 2021 review: Europa (Haider Rashid)

Haider Rashid’s Europa is a horror film. Its subject might be the migrant experience, its story might be about a young man buying passage from the Turkish border into Bulgaria, but its pacing, its use of camera, its overall cinematic effect is horror. And maybe this is the perfect genre-blending to make sense of the experience.

Europa is a simple film, made simply but with great effect. It sits alongside J.C. Chandor’s nautical survival film All Is Lost in how it portrays one man fighting to survive, Peter Weir’s The Way Back in showing us what it is to walk to survive, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing in showing us what it is to be hunted, and very certainly has elements of the Blair Witch about it – there are terrors in that forest.

The story is perfunctory. We join a small band of migrants as they pay to cross the border to Bulgaria. Immediately on arrival there is a massacre by night. The bogeymen in Europa are militarised civilian men, like those we more commonly see on the borders of Texas. They are armed, violent, indiscriminate; they are (but for one moment in the film) faceless hunters with dogs and machine guns.

Our protagonist, a young man we learn is named Kamal, who has journeyed from Iraq, runs from the massacre into the darkness of the forest and from there essentially he keeps running. Or at least walking or stumbling, climbing, falling, anything to keep going. Anything to evade his pursuers.

The film is almost silent, but for some small interactions with people later in the film. There is no dialogue per se, almost no story. What we have centered on screen for almost the entire running time of the film is a young man’s face. This is the film’s central conceit and it is a deeply effective and affecting one. There are many ways Europa could have been shot – we could have chased him the way the camera chases Franke Potente in Run Lola Run. We could have seen him in great forest vistas, a young man as a speck of human struggle in the great uncaring outdoors, or we could have seen many other cinematic tropes, but Haider Rashid and his cinematographer Jacopo Caramella chose differently. This is a survival film because we see the desperate will to survive on Kamal’s face. It is a horror film because we see abject terror on Kamal’s face. So too desperation, pleading, anger, confusion, loss, loneliness, exertion, capitulation. Adam Ali as Kamal gives a bravura performance. It’s hard to think of any film that asks so much of its lead. The film must have been demanding of the actor and is almost equally demanding of the viewer. This is not a film we can escape easily. Even guardian angels can’t be trusted, and the ending, though ambiguous, is hard to avoid interpreting for the worst.

There is subtle cleverness in Europa’s direction and cinematography. The way the world is seen over Kamal’s shoulder – the camera swirling from a close focus on his foregrounded face to an object or event of note in the distance and then focus-pulled back to catch the emotion. One scene sees Kamal climb a tree and the camera in one take climb with him, then scan back down to see a shocking event. Good stuff, surely done on no budget at all and with smartly applied cleverness.

There is one criticism to be leveled at Europa. At the midpoint of the film a confrontation with one of his pursuers turns violent. It’s a narrative mistake. To that point we have the story of a young man pursued by faceless, militarised ghouls. He can’t stop, he can’t think, he has to always keep moving (this also calls to mind 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Donald Sutherland’s endless flight towards the end of the film). But when the pursuers are humanised, made vulnerable in that moment and Kamal given a taste of agency it doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps Rashid intended it to be cathartic or to create balance, but the tension is better when the pursuer is unknown. It also makes us look differently at Kamal and that is probably a mistake.

All in all, Europa is a powerful watch. It is short, kinetic and wrenching. Its approach is gently skewed by its use of camera and the full-blooded portrayal of Kamal is exceptional. The storyline is slender and it could be an excellent half of a double-bill or part of a film series, paired equally with films about the migrant experience or with horror films. How thought-provoking it would be to watch The Blair Witch Project and this film in one sitting.