The persuasive cinema of exodus

The theme of large-scale human exodus is one of the most prevalent and persuasive in world cinema, ubiquitous in the international festival circuit these days.
Image used for representative purposes only
Image used for representative purposes onlyPhoto | Nagaraja Gadekal, EPS

Mahdi Fleifel’s debut feature To A Land Unknown begins with a quote from Palestinian American scholar Edward Said: “In a way, it’s sort of the fate of Palestinians not to end up where they started, but somewhere unexpected and far away.” It perfectly sums up the destiny of Chatila and Reda, the protagonists of the film that premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes.

Having been displaced from their own country and unable to feel a sense of belonging in a refugee camp in Lebanon, they move further to Athens in Greece, intent on travelling onwards to Germany with the dream of seeking asylum and setting up a café there. But it’s not easy for their fancy to turn real.

Away from their families, undocumented, exploited, confined to their own shabby, underprivileged Arab ghetto, taking to petty crime, drugs, theft and trafficking, waiting to get illegal identity papers, they decide to take an extreme measure to flee to freedom. But is freedom so easy to find? Will Athens stop being the interminable stopover in the ongoing journey to the eventual rest and refuge? Or will it be like the Palestinian icon Mahmoud Darwish’s poem that one of them recites: “Besiege your siege… there is no escape.”

In Boris Lojkine’s Un Certain Regard jury and performance award winner The Story of Souleyman, the home country of its lead—Guinea in West Africa—might be thousands of miles away from Chatila’s Palestine, but their quests to find a foothold in an alien land and build life for themselves and their loved ones are very similar. For accomplishing their respective goals, both must deal with greedy, blood-sucking agents assuring them passage to safety and security at a high cost. Both the films illustrate how the business of immigration for some is all about profiting from the despair of others.

The story follows Souleyman Sangare through two days in Paris, leading up to his asylum interview with the authorities. He tries hard to memorise the false narrative he has been asked to spout as a political asylum seeker, though he confesses he “knows nothing of politics”.

Even while preparing for the exam-like interview, he must deliver parcels, documents and food. In the course of it, he has an accident, gets yelled at, picks up a fight, tries to find a night shelter for the homeless to park himself in the cold night, has a heart-aching breakup with his sweetheart far away, and eventually gets to narrate his true story of destitution, the inability to get by financially, and torture on the way to France from home through Mali, Algeria and Libya. Will he get protection and the right to live and work in France? The film leaves us with the question looming large. 

Even though people like Chatila and Souleyman are pushed to the margins or invisibilised in real life, their stories are great fodder for fiction. The theme of large-scale human exodus is one of the most prevalent and persuasive in world cinema, ubiquitous in the international festival circuit these days. It held true this year for the Cannes Film Festival as well. What made things even more resonant was the fact that one of the leading Iranian filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof, whose new film The Seed of the Sacred Fig was competing for the Palme d’Or, had himself fled his home country days before the premiere, and now lives in exile in Europe.

However, unlike Rasoulof’s overt confrontation with dictatorial politics, the films in Cannes looked more at the intimate, personal, familial, social, cultural and especially economic ramifications of immigration.

If Paul Schrader’s competition film Oh, Canada is all about the reminiscences of an American leftist who fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam War draft, Minh Quy Truong’s Vietnamese film Viet and Namthat played in Un Certain Regard, is a doomed love story of two coal miners, one of whom plans to relocate and resettle abroad in the face of poverty at home, quite like Souleyman.

One of the thematic strands of Wei Liang Chaing’s Mongrelshowcased in Directors’ Fortnight and winner of a Special Mention Camera d’Or, is the dehumanisation and exploitation of migrant labourers force-assembled in the highlands of Taiwan from across the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. One of them strongly asserts to the locals: “Our migrants work for you, so be grateful.”

The two biggest successes this year—Sean Baker’s Palme d’Or-winning Anora and Payal Kapadia’s Grand Prix awardee All We Imagine As Light—are both set in migrant pockets of two great metros. One in the Russian immigrant dominated Brighton Beach of New York, other centred on two Malayali nurses in the melting pot of Mumbai. The Uzbek-American stripper Ani of the former and nurses Anu and Prabha in the latter might be comfortably settled in the dynamic cities, but the tenuousness and vulnerability of the essential migrant experience is difficult to shake off. 

Most migrant narratives are shot in a vérité style—some like Kapadia use documentary elements to anchor the story in reality. Different from that is the refreshingly absurd and audacious aesthetic of Matthew Rankin’s Directors’ Fortnight audience award winner, Universal Language. Set in the world of Iranian immigrants, Winnipeg becomes Tehran-like, Farsi gets ubiquitously spoken and multicultural Canada, including its iconic Tim Hortons, get Persianised. For a change, the immigrant is not on the margins of the adopted home, but at the social, cultural and emotional core. It’s not the migrant who has to fit in, but for the rest of the world that has to make space. 

Namrata Joshi

Consulting Editor

Follow her on X @Namrata_Joshi

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