Who doesn’t like Christmas lights? In the darkest season they shine brightly and lift spirits. If we take the Christian message seriously it is also a time to put a light out for the stranger, for anyone seeking refuge from the darkness.
In the gospel story, Mary and Joseph were strangers seeking a safe place, however humble, when they arrived in Bethlehem. Later we are told that they had to flee with the child Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s deadly persecution. The Holy Family became refugees.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called attention to the moral imperative of welcoming, protecting and supporting refugees and migrants, emphasizing duties of justice, civility, solidarity, and hospitality that are rooted in the gospels. (“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” Mt 25:35.)
Some 65 million people, many of them children, are refugees in today’s world, more than at any time since the Second World War. At the same time, we see a right-wing “populist” backlash against growing numbers of asylum seekers in many western countries. Canada has remained relatively open but, is not immune. The refugee crisis is testing our values.
A month ago I attended an international discussion at the University of Ottawa on the theme “Welcoming Refugees — Changing the Public Conversation.” In troubled times, when fears of and hostility toward the other are easily stoked, how to mobilize a compassionate response, to bring light instead of heat to bear?
The plight of refugees and migrants was a theme of several films in this year’s European Union Film Festival put on by the Canadian Film Institute of which I am an ambassador member. Two of the countries most impacted by the human tide have been Greece and Germany. In Greek director Yannis Sakardis’ Amerika Square (Greece’s official entry for the foreign-language film Oscar), a resentful unemployed Greek man lashes out at the newcomers he blames for making his Athens public square a place of migration and misery, while several refugees — a Syrian man who becomes separated from his young daughter; an African woman being held by a human trafficker — are desperate to leave to find sanctuary elsewhere, preferably Germany.
In Simon Verhoeven’s Welcome to Germany a young Nigerian man whose family was killed by the Boko Haram Islamist terror group is seeking asylum when he is taken in by the Hartmanns, a divided upper-class Munich household, setting off all manner of consequences as touchy subjects touch a nerve. Fantastically entertaining, and incisive as timely satire, it’s easy to see why it was Germany’s biggest box-office hit of 2016.
It says something about the movie business that neither of the above appears to have had any theatrical distribution in North America. However, here are two German productions that have reached Canadian theatres this month.
Ai Weiwei is China’s most famous artist-activist, with an expansive humanist vision that has often clashed with the Communist Party-controlled regime. He spends much of his time abroad and has a studio in Berlin. His latest ambitious project took him to 23 countries most affected by the global refugee crisis, resulting in the 140-minute film Human Flow (http://www.humanflow.com/), which premiered at the Venice film festival. He acts as our personal witness as he goes to the front lines: of desperate people on the move seeking a place of safety; of the dangerous conditions they must often endure; of the harsh security barriers erected to stop them; of the huge encampments in which some may be trapped for many years.
Ai puts a distinctive human face on this massive flow of humanity, allowing us to see that these are individuals and families with their own stories and situations, histories of loss and hopes for a better future. As the film opens he is among those helping anxious arrivals on the Greek island of Lesvos and speaks with a young Iraqi man escaping the violence in that country, which has seen four million displaced since the 2003 invasion.
In addition to the European crossroads, Turkey and the Middle East (notably Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza), Ai travels to Pakistan, the Mexico-U.S. border, and Kenya, which hosts the Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest. Everywhere in images and words (including those of poets and prophets) he strives to present in human terms the experience of what it is like to be a refugee or migrant. There are stunning shots, from overhead birds-eye panoramas to intimate close-ups, which convey both the scale of what is happening and its deeply personal impacts.
No one wants to be displaced from their home to become a refugee. As one tells Ai: “Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It’s the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make this human life not just tolerable, but meaningful in many ways.”
Among the eye-opening facts presented are that an average of 34,000 people flee their homes every day. At the height of the Syrian exodus 56,000 refugees entered Greece in a single week. Germany’s extraordinary acceptance of one million in 2015 contrasts with the “Great Wall of Europe” in places like Hungary and Macedonia. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were 11 militarized border walls or fences globally; today there are 70 (with plans to build more). Jordan’s refugee population of 1.4 million would be the equivalent to 60 million in the United States or the European Union. (According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, developing countries host 86 per cent of all refugees and less than one per cent of those are ever resettled.)
Behind these statistics and news headlines Ai keeps reminding us of the human story represented by the numbers and of the challenge it presents to our common humanity.
Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki was awarded the Berlin film festival’s “silver bear” as best director for his absorbing drama The Other Side of Hope, which also shines a spotlight on refugee struggles to escape violence and find a new home. Beautifully filmed in 35mm and featuring strong performances, the movie proceeds along two very different tracks that eventually converge. As it opens Khaled (Sherwan Haji) emerges from under a boatload of coal in the Helsinki harbour. A mechanic from the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, it is the end of a harrowing journey involving human traffickers and multiple border crossings (Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary). We later learn that, after being attacked by neo-Nazis in a Polish port, he stowed away on a cargo ship that happened to be bound for Finland.
In the other narrative an older Finnish man, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), walks out on his sullen wife, sells off his clothing business, wins a fortune at a poker table, and invests in a restaurant called “The Golden Pint,” inheriting three employees who haven’t been paid in three months. Never mind. The taciturn Wikström seems content to manage and turn things around.
Khaled, able to communicate in English, reports to a police station, requests asylum, and is sent to a reception centre. He befriends another young man, a refuge from Iraq, who will prove helpful in locating Khaled’s sister Miriam (Niroz Haji) from whom he has been separated since losing contact while he was jailed in Hungary. At the centre there’s nothing to do but wait and smoke until called for an official hearing. (In this picture all the men seem to smoke.)
Khaled scrupulously follows the procedures. He tells the interview board that his house in Syria was destroyed and that he has lost his fiancée and entire family except for Miriam, whereabouts unknown, and a cousin trapped on the Syrian side of the closed border with Turkey. Yet Khaled’s case is rejected on spurious grounds even while scenes of Aleppo’s destruction are flashing across television screens. Unable to accept being deported, Khaled flees the centre and goes on the run. After being beaten by white nationalist thugs, Wikström finds him one day slumped beside the restaurant’s dumpster.
This is where the friendless Wikström discovers he has a heart after all. He takes Khaled in and gives him a job, hides him when inspectors come, and pays to get him a fake but passable identity card allowing him to come out from the shadows. Khaled joins the other staff in the restaurant’s serial reinventions — as a sushi bar, dance club, Indian eatery. These scenes, shot through with wry humour, add a humane lightness to the darker aspects of Khaled’s plight. Spirits are lifted further when Miriam is found in a Lithuanian refugee centre and Wikström helps to smuggle her into Helsinki. Even after Khaled is viciously attacked by a neo-Nazi (who ironically calls him a “Jewboy”), the story survives despairing situations to come to a gentle close on the hopeful side.
As a footnote, I am surprised that Finland chose instead another co-production, Tom of Finland (which I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival), as its official selection for the 90th Academy Awards. It’s based on the life of Touko Laaksonen, a decorated war veteran who, as an illustrator of gay erotic magazines, became celebrated in America as an icon of queer subculture. The Other Side of Hope is not only superior, its fictional narrative speaks to more important and timely truths.
As a last word, by the time you read this the newest epic episode Star Wars: The Last Jedi (http://www.starwars.com/) will be blazing across screens everywhere. We may not be equipped with the force of its light sabres. But we all have it in our power to resist the dark side.