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Refugees and Nationalism: How Europe Is Questioning Its Identity Through the Movies

One of Europe's biggest summer film events provided a unique window into the continent's current challenges.

Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary.

Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Narratives Toe the Line

“The Line”

Wandal Production

Documentaries are the natural home for films with a political or sociological bent. But the narrative features at Karlovy Vary were often mirror images of their nonfiction counterparts, twisting familiar genres until they gave off a newly urgent vibe.

An example from the main competition, “The Line” (which Film Republic just acquired the international rights to), is a smart, well-made Slovak crime thriller set on the country’s border with Ukraine. It’s a region with an economy so dim that even the top cigarette smuggler has to live in his mother’s house with his family. Adam (Tomáš Maštalír) would be happy to stick with his “cancer” shipments, but Slovakia is soon to enter the Schengen Area, a show of unity with the rest of Europe that will strengthen the border and thus jeopardize its underground economy. So Adam’s associates convince him to add drugs to their revenue streams — and then a truck full of Afghan migrants gets involved. Director Peter Bebjak is brilliant at using genre trappings to highlight the costs and contradictions of living in an increasingly borderless world, whether that vanishing line is between countries, between citizenships or between right and wrong.

Daha (More)

Filmmakers should beware of making that line disappear entirely, though: the end results may not be as powerful as they seem on paper. “Daha” (More), the debut film from Turkish actor-turned-director Onur Saylak, wallows in the gutter of human misery and in the process frequently confuses depravity with profundity. Saylak follows a Turkish teen named Gaza (Hayat Van Eck), whose father leads a refugee smuggling operation on the Aegean coast, holding loads at a time in a bunker beneath the produce shed that acts as their front. Daddy (a very broad Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) is a monster, as we learn fairly quickly when he rapes a refugee, murders her young son to hide the evidence and forces his own to watch the burial, all in the span of about five minutes of screen time (capped with some off-screen dog abuse for good measure).

The problem with this approach, besides its obvious sadism, is that it leaves no nuance for the rest of the film to uncover, no psychological depth. We’re left watching a series of brutal acts involving father and son, until Gaza loses all hope for redemption and simply becomes a monster himself, telling the audience… what? That there are sickos in the world who take advantage of the powerless? Got the tip, thank you.

But turgid dramas are not the only respectable way to approach the refugee crisis. Screened in the festival’s out-of-competition Horizons program riding a wave of good buzz from its Berlinale premiere, Aki Kaurismäki’s characteristically deadpan comedy “The Other Side of Hope” works improbably well as a piece of humanist warmth. Improbable because, as always, the Finnish auteur prefers a highly mannered, affectless style that seems like it would have felt tacky in a situation like this.

Yet mass migration proves to be a surprisingly flexible narrative framework, as we see when a Syrian named Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is introduced with his stoic, Buster Keaton-like face blackened with coal from the Helsinki-bound ship he’s stowed away on. Awaiting news of his sister’s whereabouts as he evades racist street gangs, Khaled lands a job at a failing restaurant after he beats up the new owner (Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) in a dumpster brawl. The eatery’s fortunes may not turn around, but Khaled’s do, with the help of the ragtag Finns who make up for their lack of culinary presentation with low-key kindness.

Shine a Lux

“Western”

It’s no wonder the broadly appealing “Hope,” with its message of different communities aiding each other for the common good, was one of the 10 selections for the Lux Prize.

The other selections included recent Cannes premieres “Western” (a German-Austrian production), “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” (from France) and “A Ciambra” (Italy), as well as several films that have been making the festival rounds for months, including Poland’s “The Last Family,” Bulgaria’s “Glory” and Iceland’s “Heartstone.” Only a handful of the choices reflected current European politics to quite the same explicit degree as many of the Karlovy Vary films.

British movies, perhaps unsurprisingly, were shut out of Lux this year.

Nominated filmmakers who might wish to look beyond Europe can take some stock in the prize’s recent track record. After the three finalists are announced, Parliament votes on a winner, and the previous four victors were “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “Ida,” “Mustang” and “Toni Erdmann.” All were eventual Oscar nominees (and, in “Ida”‘s case, the winner). But Lux representatives at the event insisted any subsequent success abroad was merely a coincidence, and that the true purpose of the award is to get more European films into European cinemas.

If Karlovy Vary can accomplish that much, as well, then this endeavor will continue to show that the unity of films can matter on this shifting continent.

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