Aki Kaurismäki, The Other Side of Hope (2017)
By Markus Heide
The Other Side of Hope, directed by Aki Kaurismäki, concentrates on Syrian and Iraqi refugees in contemporary Finland. A film referencing the anti-generic traditions of European auteur cinema, Kaurismäki’s tragicomedy links its storyline explicitly to, first, recent events in the Syrian civil war and, second, to Finnish reactions to what has been referred to as the “refugee crisis of 2015”, such as the forming and rise of right-wing militia groups. The film juxtaposes different domestic and public places where individuals go through various experiences of hospitality and hostility (Derrida 2000). Kaurismäki’s minimalistic style confronts the audience with different forms of communication with the foreigner, the Other, the guest in early 21st century Finnish society. Acts of providing refuge create situations of hope – shown as providing security and protection for the guest and foreigner – within a broader social landscape of danger and hostility. These hopescapes reflect on the understanding and treatment of the refugee as guest.
In Helsinki a traveling salesman of men’s shirts, Waldemar Vikström, leaves his wife and sells all the shirts remaining in stock. In a poker game he multiplies the sum he received and buys a restaurant with his newly won cash. With his three employees he tries out different cuisines and culinary concepts (such as turning the place into a Sushi restaurant) in order to attract more guests. At the same time, the Syrian Khaled Ali arrives in Helsinki on a cargo ship, applying for asylum at a police station. He befriends an Iraqi refugee, Mazdak, at the refugee processing facility, who promises to help Khaled search for his sister who was lost during their journey through Southern and Eastern Europe. Khaled’s application for asylum is denied, and when the police come to pick him up for deportation, one of the facility’s employees helps him escape. Waldemar finds Khaled hiding between the trash containers outside his eatery. Following a fistfight between them, Waldemar eventually hosts the famished Syrian, finds him a place to stay, gives him work at the restaurant and organizes a fake ID for him. Mazdak delivers the news that Khaled’s sister was found in Lithuania, and Waldemar pays a trucker to smuggle Khaled’s sister to Finland. Shortly after her arrival in Helsinki, however, Khaled is stabbed by an anti-immigrant racist. The next morning Khaled meets his sister in front of a police station and hides his wound from her, as she enters the police station to apply for asylum. Khaled then rests under a tree on a riverbank, when a dog belonging to Mirja, a waitress working in Waldemar’s restaurant, licks his face. Khaled smokes a cigarette as he smiles, and it is left open, how (and whether) the lives of Khaled and his sister will proceed in Finland.
Hopescapes: Leaving, Crossing, Beginning
Kaurismäki’s second refugee drama, after Le Havre (2011), is marked by the two motifs of “leaving things behind” and “creating a new home”. The film, combining Kaurismäki’s interest in Finnish idiosyncrasies (Nestingen 2013, 113) with the topic of refugee migration, juxtaposes different ambitions and desires for starting a new life. Some of the characters are driven by boredom, some by the allure of different, exotic lifestyles, some by the bare necessity of survival in an unknown society, some by trying to overcome trauma. While the Finnish protagonist, as well as other Finnish characters, long for change in their daily routine, the refugee protagonist, as well as other refugee characters, attempt to start anew out of necessity, as a way to survive after the experience of war related violence in Syria and Iraq. All through the film, the symbolic language highlights the crossing of boundaries, such as passing over a threshold, jumping a fence, entering a bar, registering at a police station, emerging from a hiding place, or separating from a partner. Acts (and metaphors) of leaving and entering are followed by efforts at establishing a new home, a new career, or finding new ways to survive. The Other Side of Hope shows refugees and Finns going through distinct experiences in Finnish society, but it also suggests common desires between both groups for survival, for security, and for community. Thus the 2017 production takes up the cinematic reflection on Finnishness and universal perspectives that Nestingen (2013, 114) highlights as characteristic of Kaurismäki’s earlier work.
The first scene, devoid of spoken dialogue, shows Waldemar leaving his wife who sits at their kitchen table. The wordless farewell signifies that this is a separation, a final scene, an ending of a marriage, and at the same time an attempt at starting a new life. Before leaving the flat, Waldemar places his wedding ring on the table. His wife relocates the ring to the ashtray and grinds her cigarette out in it, before pouring herself another drink from the vodka bottle. However, she does not empty the bottle entirely, but rather stops to think briefly, and consider her action. This hesitation, as we learn later, indicates an important change in her life that started once her husband left: She stops drinking. Thus, the tragicomedy starts in the private space of an elderly couple and then enters the social space shaped by melancholia (music), moments of community (bars, dancing, dining) and the processing of migration (police stations, courtrooms, asylum-seekers’ hostels).
Kaurismäki’s mise-en-scène implies that many of the Finnish characters long for far-away places and yearn for change, imagining leaving their present situation to lead a different life somewhere else. Waldemar’s wife keeps a huge barrel cactus on her kitchen table – a plant that only survives in Scandinavia if cared for in the warmth; the allochthone plant sticks out as an indicator of this silent longing, a reference to a possible different, happier life, a melancholia permeating Kaurismäki’s depiction of Finland. When Waldemar tries to convince an acquaintance to join him in his new business as a restaurateur, she refuses, explaining that she has plans to retire, move to Mexico City, where she wants to “drink sake and dance hula hula.” Such desire for alternative lives in “exotic” places also finds expression in the sorrowful folk music that contrasts the often-humorous depiction of Finnish urban life. Finnish folk music performed by bands reappear throughout the narrative, playing songs that speak of a bleak life in the natural harshness of the North. The editing contrasts the dreariness of the Finnish lyrics to such markers of “exotic” joy as tango dancing, references to Venezuela in a song, sushi and Japanese dresses, and the description of Waldemar’s restaurant as a culinary “Mekka.” Kaurismäki’s Finns imagine, construct and create spaces of hope, hopescapes, for their desires (dancing), forgotten dreams (running a restaurant), or psycho-physical health (overcoming alcoholism). These local hopescapes are juxtaposed to, and sometimes overlap with, the refugees’ hopescapes.
Finland does not only appear as a place where the refugee characters are exposed to sad lyrics and melancholic alcohol consumption. Next to places of social gathering (restaurants, bars, music halls), partly depicted in a humorous tone, Khaled enters space marked by bureaucracy and policing as well as space marked by racism, exclusion, and violence. Some of these places signal hope to the asylum seeker although the editing, acting, and coloring stress the unemotional interactions, the coldness, the dismissively legalistic atmosphere. After his arrival in Helsinki, Khaled seeks asylum at a police station. We see close-ups of the exchange of passports and papers. Policemen start the procedure in a routine manner, with only a few words exchanged in English. In such recurrent scenes in police stations, asylum administration offices, and courtrooms, the movie works with close-ups of faces, that are shown in silent shot-countershot structure. In between the facial close-ups we see close-ups of working materials and interior details of state bureaucracy: recorders, forms, signatures, passports. The dialogues are delivered without much expression, even dramatic moments are acted with an unnatural coldness. In the interview with the immigration officer, Khaled recounts his experiences in Syria and during his journey through Europe. Although his story indicates despair and deep sadness, no trace of emotion is visible in the scene. When the officer asks what he expects of his future life in Finland, he simply responds: “I do not matter.” Khaled’s self-denial articulates his despair, not being able to express any idea or dream for his future in Finland. It is not for his personal future that he intends to live in Finland but to enable his sister to have a future after the traumatizing loss of their family members in Syria. The sentence, “I do not matter,” spoken in broken English by a refugee in a country that is unknown to him and that only coincidentally became his refuge, will remain the only spoken expression of Khaled’s despair and of his depression, or, in the words of the movie’s title, “the other side of hope.” The minimalistic cinematography is mirrored in the reduced acting and the suppressed emotionality. However, below the reductive imagery and dialogue, encounters between Finns and refugees indicate that Finland offers spaces where survival is made possible and a livable future can be imagined.
Following his initial registration, Khaled is led to a cell where he has to wait for further instructions. From there he is brought to the asylum seekers’ hostel, from where he escapes just before police pick him up for deportation. After passing through these state bureaucracy places that gradually enfeeble Khaled’s hopes, Khaled finds a new place of hope in Waldemar’s restaurant and kitchen. In a moment of despair, he breaks out of the asylum seekers’ place, using violence, breaking closed doors, jumping fences and hiding from state representatives. When Waldemar finds Khaled hiding between his garbage containers and tells him that this is “his property”, Khaled punches the Finn’s face. The expression of anger, however, shakes Waldemar and turns him from entrepreneur to host, his restaurant from business to refuge. Khaled is welcomed in a new hopescape. He experiences hospitality, although the film refrains from showing close emotional bonding between any of the characters. His host even makes it possible that Khaled’s sister is smuggled into Finland. Waldemar acts as a host who provides everything that makes the life of his guest as comfortable as possible.
Hostility vs Hospitality
However, the new refugee hopescapes that the second part of the film reveals, prove to be insecure, constantly in danger, threatened by state interference (documents, police control) or physical violence by the nationalist and racist groups who are opposed to immigration. Kaurismäki’s drama is not only linked to the war in Syria but also to social and political changes of more recent times, such as the rise of anti-immigrant groups in Finland (for example the founding of the right-wing group Soldiers of Odin when the first refugees arrived in Finland in 2015). Kaurismäki’s film juxtaposes actions of hospitality to actions of hostility and thus visualizes what Jacques Derrida (2000) refers to as hostipitality. The Other Side of Hope links the refugee’s experience to specific contexts of Finland but may be read as a general depiction of a world marked by violence in which those who seek refuge are forced to survive in environments of hostipitality, where hospitality constantly clashes with hostility.
A group of men reappears three times – they are clearly identifiable as anti-immigrant and racist. First, they spot Khaled at a bus stop, identifying him as a person of color. They attack him and tell him that he is not welcome in Finland. Khaled manages to escape when the bus – driven by another person of color – arrives. The second encounter with the group takes place after leaving a pub where Khaled had joined the Finnish audience of a folk concert. Just before violence escalates, a group of Finns defends Khaled against the aggressors. In one of the final scenes, a racist ambushes Khaled and stabs him in the stomach, addressing him as “Jew.” Khaled, bleeding, finds his way back to the room Waldemar provided for him. The next morning Khaled meets his sister and guides her to the police station where she plans to apply for asylum. He hides his wounds from his sister. As Khaled did not show up for work, Waldemar looks for him in his room, noticing blood on the floor. In the silent and minimalist style of Kaurismäki’s directing, this second last scene acquires particular symbolic significance: Blood on the floor of the “guest’s room.” Hostility enters, marks, destroys the refuge, the space of hospitality Waldemar offered. This image, at the end of the film, indicates, without many words, the fragility of the welcoming culture of affluent societies like Finland.
The film starts with two narrative threads that eventually merge when Waldemar meets Khaled for the first time. The final scenes suggest that the two men’s lives may drift apart anew: Waldemar reunites with his wife and Khaled leans against a tree, possibly fatally wounded. The ending leaves the audience with an open narrative as Khaled’s and his sister’s fate in Finland are uncertain. However, the last shots of the Syrian refugee reconnect to the symbolism of the first images of his arrival. The filmic arrival and the departure of the “guest” appear to be symbolically linked. Khaled’s face first slowly emerges out of a load of coal in which he had been hiding on his way across the Baltic sea. Like a mythic figure he emerges out of dark organic tissue and only after washing off his blackened face seeks a police station to apply for asylum. The first images of the film expose the cinematic act of making visible what often, in hegemonic discourse, remains invisible: the refugee, the undocumented entry (Rosello 2001, 8). The final images take up the initial implications of visibility and invisibility as well as the initial organic imagery. Khaled’s body is shown at a riverbank, leaning against a tree – the first glimpse offered of Finland’s and Scandinavia’s natural environment, which has, after all, emblematic meaning for the nation (as the folk music throughout the movie emphasizes). The last images seem to signal the arrival of the Syrian in particularly Finnish imagery, he is part of the “national” landscape, as well as hopescape, and by implication has become part of his “host society”. The external shots show his body in, and as part of the Finnish landscape, that he (and the audience) had heard songs about but that has otherwise not been visualized in the entirely urban film setting. In the last shots, the guest/refugee/migrant is shown with his body spread out on the riverbank, leaning against a trunk, tree bark filling the background, an apparently harmonious image, a possible happy ending of a migrant narrative. But – as the viewer knows – he is wounded, maybe fatally, and the film leaves it open whether the host society will finally welcome him or whether the foreign soil will be the place where violence ended the refugee’s life. The Other Side of Hope displays a highly ambiguous Finnish society that is both welcoming and brutally exclusive, hospitable and dangerously hostile.
Derrida, Jacques and Anne Dufourmantelle (2000), Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Derrida, Jacques (2000), “Hostipitality,” Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, 5:3, 3-18.
Nestingen, Andrew (2013), The Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki: Contrarian Stories, New York: Columbia University Press.
Rosello, Mireille (2001), Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest, Stanford: Stanford University Press.