The Other Side of Hope


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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Aki Kaurismäki never does things conventionally. When he won the Silver Bear in Berlin for The Other Side of Hope, he didn’t bother heading to the stage; the hosts brought him his prize and a mic, but he decided to speak into the bear statuette instead. Of course, his film isn’t conventional in any sense, either. It’s a political film, only it never feels didactic like Ken Loach. It’s a film about a refugee, but it’s also about a pudgy divorcee running a terrible restaurant and it features a scene of broad comedy where his team utterly fail to make sushi. Most unconventional is the title itself, The Other Side of Hope, which feels incongruous with a tale that involves harrowing border crossings and moments of racist violence.

Yet this is a film that thrives on the balance between hope and despair, between human compassion and bureaucratic cruelty. Early on in the film, would-be restauranteur Wikstrom plays a lengthy, high-stakes game of poker. His impassive face shows very little, with just the wryest hint of a smile as he takes big piles of cash. It’s the film in microcosm, utterly deadpan, asking the audience to read beneath the surface, yet shot through with Kaurismäki’s unmistakeable sense of humour.

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The Other Side of Hope addresses the hottest topic in modern geopolitics, the refugee crisis, giving far more weight to the perspective that it’s a crisis for the refugees than a crisis for the people receiving them. Finland is one of the countries that has received the most asylum seekers, with over 32,000 arriving on its shores in 2015. As with many places around Europe, this coincided with a rise in racist attacks, with refugee centres often the target.[1] Such violence is on display in the film, but it’s more of a sinister backdrop than the focal point of Kaurismäki’s gaze. He is more interested in kindness than hatred.

This focus on warmth and humanity is what makes the film so enticingly unconventional. The Berlinale’s big winner from the previous year, Fire at Sea, took a blistering, uncompromising look at the travails of refugees attempting to flee across the Mediterranean. It relied on showing you the plight of the travellers to shock you into action, and with good reason. Such provocative documentaries play a vital role in the discourse surrounding the migrant crisis; Kaurismäki’s decision to combine a refugee story with a comedy about a failing restaurant seems strange by comparison.

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The celebrated Finnish director, however, is weaving his politics seamlessly into his narrative. Sermonizing has its time and place, but Kaurismäki would rather inspire you to compassion and humanity. He once said about his earlier refugee film, Le Havre, that “I might look like a cool guy, but I am most sentimental. I care about others, not too much about myself.”[2] Khaled is ultimately taken in by Wikstrom and ends up working at this failing restaurant. The ensuing japes are disarming. The images of migrants in the media are most often noisy crowds swelling at borders or boatloads full of people wearing haunted expressions. It sometimes takes the gentle comedy of Kaurismäki to remind us that the people we see in the papers – the people politicians describe as a swarm – are just people. They laugh, they cry, they have desires and senses of humour and they like to listen to music.

For every skinhead that Khaled meets on his journey there is also a friendly busker giving directions or a lorry driver wanting to help someone out. Wikstrom’s first meeting with Khaled ends with them both punching one another, then cuts to Khaled being fed and welcomed in the restaurant. After a fractious introduction, Wikstrom’s sour-faced humanity shines through. A man who has every reason to be bitter at his own lot in life ends up helping out the refugee almost by default, as if there’s no other option than to be kind.

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It’s this deep vein of compassion, mingled with Kaurismäki’s comically miserable milieus, that gives the film such a rich and complex tone. The director knows how to use his craft to create this juggling act of tones, creating an aesthetic that reflects the melancholy and hope of his story. The ever-still camera captures scenes on 35mm that look like a cross between Vermeer and Edward Hopper. There is an ineffably tragicomic mood in every shot as cinematographer Timo Salminen lingers on shafts of light against blue walls; sadness mingling with that elusive hope. Kaurismäki talks about his films in an almost dismissive manner, but the care he puts into every composition here shows the warmth beneath his famously grumpy exterior.

Naturally, Kaurismäki’s unconventional way of expressing this compassion ends in an equally ambiguous manner. Not everything is wrapped up with a neat bow, but there are glimmers of optimism. Many of the people that Khaled meets along the way, from card forgers to Helsinki’s homeless people, have shown the basic levels of decency that all humans deserve. Implicitly, Kaurismäki is suggesting that it isn’t too hard for us all to do the same. In the end, that looks a little something like hope.

Nathanael Smith
Freelance copywriter, copy editor and film critic
May 2017


[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2017/02/other-side-hope

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/apr/04/aki-Kaurismäki-le-havre-interview

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