Hospitality and the Ethics of Disposability in Christoph Kuschnig’s Hatch (2012)
By Silvia Schultermandl and David Hucek
Christoph Kuschnig’s short film Hatch (2012) addresses a fundamental question which is as simple in its formulation as it is complex on closer examination: What does it mean to belong to a society, and what does that entail? Where is the line that distinguishes citizens from resident aliens, rights from constraints and insiders from outsiders? Is it a passport, a bank account, or bodily capacities? Hatch illustrates different forms of exclusion across the social stratum. It shows that in between the intersections of race, class, and gender there is more than one way to bar people from seemingly universal rights. Revolving around themes of precarity as well as reproductive rights, it discusses the implications of being excluded from an essential paradigm of society and by extension, quite literally, the future. The independent production received numerous accolades at film festivals around the world and is currently freely available via the director’s Vimeo page
Hatch tells the story of two couples: Milo and Biljana, illegal immigrants who live in the run-down outskirts of Vienna and struggle to get by with their newborn baby, and Thomas and Andreas, a middle-class couple who desperately want to have a child. Because of their economic precarity and illegal status in Austria, Milo and Biljana see no other choice than to put their child up for adoption. The night they finally decide to take the infant to the baby hatch they are observed by Thomas from a distance. Because of the legal impossibility of adopting a child, Thomas spends his nights roaming around the baby hatch. When he sees Milo placing the child in the hatch, he takes his chances. He steals the infant from the hatch and takes the baby girl home with him. Although Milo is able to note down the license plate of Thomas’s car, their illegal status in Austria prevents them from taking action. Back at their flat, Andreas convinces Thomas that there is no way they could ever raise a child under the given circumstances. Soon Thomas comes to terms with the situation and takes the baby back to the hatch. Milo and Biljana on the other hand remain without knowledge of Thomas’s remorse.
Hatch raises several important issues connected to the theme of hospitality. Predominant among them is the issue of welcome and belonging within the domestic space of a homeplace and on the level of the nation-state. These two are, of course, connected and mirror each other in the film. The film’s clever intervention in this regard is to connect the theme of hospitality not only to issues of immigration and asylum but also to gay rights. This becomes evident from the ways in which the film creates parallels between the illegal status that prevents Milo and Biljana from being able to provide for their daughter Sanja and the illegal status that Thomas and Andreas’ coupledom face, especially as far as their desire to become parents. The film depicts the right to raise a child, a right that goes well beyond biological determinism and reproductive capabilities, as a condition linked to the hospitality of a nation-state towards its marginal population. This marginality includes poverty and illegal terms of denizenship to the same degree as middle-class stability and homosexuality. Both, so the film epitomizes, become marginalized through the absence of hospitality as a social sensibility which honors diversity.
When one thinks about hospitality or hospitable relations, the homeplace is usually the first association that comes to mind. However, the concept can easily be extended to larger frameworks without requiring much alteration at all. In principle, all forms of hospitality underlie the same basic rules, no matter if one is a guest in a private home or a nation. In both instances, the host, by nature of allowing a guest to enter, sets the rules as to what is tolerated and what isn’t at the same time. As Jacques Derrida argues, the host “[…] thereby affirms the law of hospitality as the law of the household, oikonimia, the law of his household, the law of a place (house, hotel, hospital, hospice, family, city, nation, language, etc.), the law which de-limits the very place of proffered hospitality and maintains authority over it […]” (2000, 4).
The rules which are established in this process are far from arbitrary; on the contrary, they reflect the dominant ideology and therefore replicate the parameters of social inclusion and exclusion. For instance, Mustafa Dikeç’s analysis of the ominous message Britain welcomes you that can be found at the country’s international airports unpacks the biases and privileges this welcome address entails. He states that, “Unlike more privileged citizens of the world, I had to obtain a visa simply to ‘be’ at the airport in London, where I would get off one plane and run to catch another. No, Britain does not welcome you. Rather, Britain welcomes you if… . And this ‘if’ is further conditioned depending, inter alia, on your nationality” (2002, 238). This short anecdote should suffice to illustrate that a host’s welcome (in this case a country’s) can not only vary widely in terms of which rules this welcome entails, but also to whom they apply. Hatch demonstrates this clearly by examining two very different positions in the social stratum which nevertheless run into similar problems when the limits of their welcome are reached.
To be sure, one of the significances of Hatch lies in the way it combines the outlook of migrants with those of homosexuals in the sense that they are both portrayed as being excluded from certain aspects of society. Judith Butler has brought forth a similar kind of connection. She argues that, “[g]ender norms have everything to do with how and in what way we can appear in public space; how and in what way the public and private are distinguished, and how that distinction is instrumentalized in the service of sexual politics” (2009, i). In a related vein, Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of “disposable people” identifies a common reason for the disenfranchisement of marginalized demographies. Bauman argues that modern societies expel those who are of no use to them. The category of disposability therefore is malleable to address both kinds of social marginalization depicted in Hatch. The question of who is allowed to participate in common life is what connects the migrant heterosexual couple to the well-situated homosexual couple – they are divided in terms of class, citizenship and legal status but yet the nation that currently harbors them both denies them certain rights. In the case of Milo and Biljana, the lack of prospects (especially with regard to legal work) forces them to abandon their newborn, in Thomas’s and Andreas’s case, a baby is precisely what is being withheld from their lives despite their economic stability. Although they are citizens and can thus participate in public life much more fully than Milo and Biljana, they are, in a figurative sense, not allowed to take part in the future, because they aren’t legally allowed to pass on their legacy.
Both couples are depicted as unable to raise the child—predominantly due to the way in which society casts them as disposable. Milo and Biljana’s precarious life at the margin of legal denizenship raises issues about their financial prospects in the long run. And while there are charitable institutions in Austria to which they potentially have access, to be able to “become something” as Milo puts it, is simply less likely with the additional responsibility of childcare. The film depicts their dire living conditions via the setting of their run-down city dwelling and there is little indication what source of income they have at all and to what degree their immigrant status allows them access to legal forms of employment. The film invites its audience to speculate about their vulnerability towards forms of illegal employment or perhaps even what Kevin Bales terms “modern slavery” (2005) in large part also via Bauman’s concept of disposability. As Milo points out so vehemently in his conversation with Biljana, what brought them to Austria was the prospect of a better future.
A different form of disposability becomes evident through the exclusion of the homosexual couple from the right to adopting a child. While the film certainly places the desire for a child within Thomas and Andreas’ personal ideal of coupledom, there is an undeniable systemic bias they face. While in Milo and Biljana’s case, being able to raise a child is a class privilege, in Thomas and Andreas’ case it certainly marks straight privilege from which they are excluded. Lee Edelman suggests that society’s fetishistic views on reproduction and the exclusion of homosexuals to this paradigm is vital in understanding their position. Edelman argues that because reproduction also holds the fantasy of the future, homosexuals are in turn excluded from that future. In this manner, they become an antagonist in the grand societal narrative. Edelman states that, “If, as the terroristic adage of our culture’s long children’s hour proposes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ then, we might add, it takes; albeit perversely, a villain too: a Scrooge, a sinthomosexual, on whom to project the force of the death drive and the obtrusion of the Real, which can never be acknowledged as the engine driving the reproduction of the social itself.”(2004, 45). Notably, the title of the film is of course an allusion not only to the physical presence of the baby hatch, but also to both the act of reproduction and parental care. In this way, the denial of a future becomes the ultimate exclusion and directly links back to the precarity of Milo and Biljana, whose future is also precisely what’s at stake.
The film depicts one brief encounter where the lives of the two couples literally meet. This meeting point is located in the vicinity of the hatch, at the moment when Thomas drives off with Baby Sanja after having taken her out of the baby hatch. The film takes liberties here: for one, baby hatches, once closed, cannot be opened again in the way that Thomas does. Moreover, in terms of timing the action, that Milo actually sees Thomas carry the baby to his car forcefully establishes an encounter between two worlds that otherwise are unlikely to meet. It is through this encounter, however, that the film creates a connection between the precarity of the two couples. Judith Butler defines precarity as, “that politically induced condition of maximized vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection.”(2009, ii). This mechanism can be seen in action when Thomas steals the baby in front of Milo’s and Biljana’s eyes. Although Milo remembers the license plate and could thereby easily identify Thomas, the looming deportation prevents him from reporting the incident to the police and thus strips him and Biljana of their right to justice. On the other hand, Thomas and Andreas soon also get a grasp of the power the state exercises over their lives when they realize that there is no way they could ever keep this child or any other legally adopted infant.
The film goes to great lengths to demonstrate the link between the two couples. One of the very first scenes for example shows Milo running from a shop owner after having stolen a bag of diapers for his newborn. He’s able to escape via streetcar while the store clerk bangs on the window shouts, “thief, thief” at him. Later in the movie when Thomas steals the baby from the baby hatch, Milo chases after his car, also shouting “thief” in hopes of stopping him. Similarly, both Biljana and Thomas—who are depicted as more emotionally attached to the baby and less ready to give up her—utter the same phrase “Look at her!” when they want to convince their partners that they should keep her. Another strong link is established through the way Milo and Thomas are placed and filmed in relation to the baby hatch. When Milo puts the baby in the hatch, he is filmed from an over the shoulder perspective; both Milo and the viewer see the hatch from the outside. When Thomas picks up the newborn in the next sequence however, the camera is positioned inside the hatch and looks outward at Thomas. The cinematography can be linked back to the men’s respective situation; Milo is an outsider who has to release his child into a system that he has no access to, Thomas is an insider who is denied the participation by an invisible wall. In this way, they represent two sides of the same coin.
In fact, Hatch exercises this parallelism perhaps nearly to a fault. There is such an effort made to establish a link between the heterosexual and the homosexual couple that hetero-normative gender roles are projected onto the gay couple. Thomas, for example, lies about “being at the office” in the beginning, Andreas is at home awaiting the Christmas decorations. It is important for the film’s sympathetic rendition of the gay couple to “normalize” it, and it does so by emphasizing Thomas and Andreas’ compatibility with the ideals of the nuclear family. That this entails forgoing any depictions of queer kinship, i.e., affiliations that do not revolve around heteronormative coupledom (Freeman), is part of a larger political tendency to legitimize gay and queer lives through discourses of normalization. As Michael Warner facetiously proposes in The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999), this makes for “good gays—the kind who would not challenge the norms of straight culture, who would not flaunt sexuality, and who would not insist on living differently than ordinary folk” (113). The style of clothing, manner of behavior and such all play their part in establishing a male/female dichotomy. This is problematic in itself because as Judith Butler states, “[h]eterosexuality can augment its hegemony through its denaturalization, as when we see denaturalizing parodies that reidealize heterosexual norms without calling them into question” (2004, 111). In precisely this manner therefore, paradoxically, the form of homosexuality which is represented in the film signifies heterosexual gender norms to some degree. On the other hand, the film’s themes clearly revolve around different forms of social exclusion beyond gender performativity. Therefore, in the larger context of the topic matter this observation loses importance to some degree. After all, the parallelism that is established is very effective – from beginning to end, it seems clear that the boundaries of hospitality are not always where we might think they are, affecting different people in various ways that are not always visible to the privileged eye.
This parallelism epitomizes one of the film’s most compelling ideas: that both couples are equally disposable in the sense of their marginalization from a middle-class, heteronormative ideal of domesticity, the kind that is inherently linked to the concept of hospitality in the first place. This brings the film’s depiction of hospitality full circle: the couples cannot offer hospitality to the baby because they themselves experience inhospitality from the nation-state. In this context, the baby does not only symbolize a future from which both couples are excluded, but serves as a catalyst in their realization of their own interpellation through the nation-state. Following Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation, the realization of the tacit factors through which ideology engenders subjectivities, it becomes tangible for audiences why Biljana and Thomas respectively realize the degree to which society interpellates them as marginal, as outlaws, and as disposable from the heteronormative family ideal while holding the baby and realizing that they are unable to keep her.
To return to the questions posed in the beginning – Hatch manages to convincingly show the misconceptions about citizenship and universal rights, hospitality and egalitarianism using an example almost every adult can relate to. With the figure of the child—disposable in a literal sense—the film draws on established genre conventions of sentimentalism. This is not only true for the emotionally-charged depictions of the trips to the hatch and the fleeting gestures of intense connection with the baby that both couples experience, but also through the direct appeal to the audience’s own hopes and desires for the child’s well-being. In this sense, Kuschnig’s film enlists the audience’s sympathy for the two couples, making them what Lauren Berlant has termed an “intimate public” which creates the impression that there exists “a world of strangers who would be emotionally literate in each other’s experience of power, intimacy, desire, and discontent, with all that entails” (5). Still, Kuschnig is quick to remind audiences that some are more equal than others, and you don’t have to look very far to understand this. Hatch’s appeal lies in its simplicity; there are no complicated plot strands or conspiracies to be found, just the carefully crafted message that the exclusion of the precariat from some of the most constitutive parts of our society is not an exception but a norm.
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