The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.
In today’s intense political climate, the battle between nationalism and globalism is a widespread conflict, one that emerges in part from being alienated by a system that is unsympathetic and uncaring. Hollywood reflects this alienation by what it chooses to ignore: The industry continually avoids touchy film subjects, such as the lives of working-class Americans. The studio’s largest, mass-produced films play it safe by focusing on the all-inclusive entertainment value of superheroes and furry animals.
One might argue that the onus lies on American audiences, who may not be interested in realism, and perhaps it’s just a business decision on part of the studios. However, within the past seven years, American independent cinema has produced successful, highly profitable films such as “Frozen River,” “Winter’s Bone,” and “Tangerine.” These titles and a few others — such as “Amreeka,” “Drunktown’s Finest,” and “American Honey” — show a willingness for American filmmakers and audiences to support proletariat driven films, but they still can’t compete with the visibility of Hollywood product.
Hollywood’s lack of engagement with such a large part of its audience becomes more jarringly clear when compared to international cinema—evidenced in this year’s New York Film Festival. Take, for example, Agnès Varda and JR’s new collaborative documentary, “Faces Places,” in which the two artists drive around France in a large van with a built-in photo booth compartment, stopping by various towns and plastering giant, printed posters (a beautiful call back to Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”) of locals on the sides of buildings and houses. Some of these locals include dockworkers (their wives are photographed as a triptych), farmers, energy plant workers, and coal miners. This conceit could have been about upper-class travelers spending time with the lower class and we, as viewers, would pay witness to the rich’s self-transformation via their own class consciousness. Thankfully, “Faces Places” does not exploit. It glimpses into the everyday lives of its subjects and catches precious moments in time.
Consider the sequence in which the photograph of a farmer is plastered on the side of his 30-foot barn. The camera lingers on the man’s face for a few seconds as he looks up at the poster, taking in the grandness of the work. He does not flinch or budge. He smiles. It’s a poignant moment, an accumulation of overseeing thousands of acres of land for several years and finally feeling appreciated for it. It’s within such restrained moments that “Faces Places” feels most political. With the nimble sparseness of its aesthetic, a byproduct of Varda’s neorealist-influenced, thrift-shop brand of filmmaking—recalling her own “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnès” —the film is an enriching experience, one in which the working class is tenderly embraced.
This humanistic approach toward depicting the proletariat as film subject is not unlike the method employed by Aki Kaurismäki in his new film, “The Other Side of Hope,” a deadpan dark comedy about a Syrian refugee, Khaled, trying to obtain political asylum in Finland. Juxtaposing Khaled is the charmingly quiet Wikström, whose marriage problems and gambling luck will lead him to buy a restaurant, for which Khaled will work.
“The Other Side of Hope” is filled with Kaurismäki’s signature modest modus operandi, with still camera shots that capture the sparse movement of characters, and a minimalistic visual palette that results in plainly filmed events. The comedy that lives beneath Kaurismäki’s placid, retro music-stylized tableaux, along with the director’s clear compassion for Khaled, is reminiscent of another European filmmaker who also had an eye for the proletariat and a feel for “the cool”: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German director’s influence is felt most readily when we first see Khaled walking away from the docks of Helsinki—a heap of coal dust covers his skin.
It is an unreal moment, the subject is Chaplinesque, but the shot is static, removed, placed several feet from Khaled, as we watch him. Later in the film, during comedic sequences in the restaurant involving Khaled and the quirky Finnish restaurant crew, Kaurismäki’s humor doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the film; it deepens the experience of viewing it. As he has done numerous times (most famously in “The Man Without a Past”), Kaurismäki uses humor to connect people to political ideas, being informative, but revealing. In one the scene, Khaled hides from government authorities in the restaurant bathroom with a playful pup (it wouldn’t be a Kaurismäki film without a canine). The scene works as a double-edged sword; it shows the hardships of a targeted individual, living in a society alien to him, but its humor reflects the absurdity of events that come with those perils.
What is key in both films is the empathy displayed. Wikström, like Varda and JR, does not condescend. Despite a less than ideal life, the business owner chooses to make the lives of people around him better, listening to his new employees’ concerns and making sure Khaled’s sister can come to Finland comfortably. These films give credence to the possibility of hope, despite the world seemingly giving up on it. And by showing the hopeful side of humanity, the films are a refreshing antidote to the cynicism of the Hollywood blockbuster machine and today’s politics.
For all their anti-Trump posturing, Hollywood executives should take inspiration from their foreign counterparts and be more apt to take a chance on films about the working classes who are most affected by political realities. Art should be a way to liberate the proletariat, not imprison it. And film should be a space that challenges, not reinforces, oppressive societal structures.