Crossing Borders, Searching Identity

in 70th Berlinale Berlin International Film Festival

by Wilfred Okiche

Siamak Etemadi’s Pari opens in an airport.

There is significance to this. As borders have continued to shrink amidst rising waves of nationalism in swathes of the western world, airports have increasingly become politicized, weaponized against certain groups of people in the ongoing stand against forces of migration.

The eponymous protagonist played by Melika Foroutan is an Iranian woman leaving her country for the first time to visit her son, Babak, who moved to Athens to study. Pari isn’t alone. She is accompanied by her husband Farrokh, a gruff but tender-hearted traditionalist who seems less interested in the journey. In the busy Greek airport, both of them stick out like a sore thumb and are easy pickings for mischievous border officials. She, a Hijab clad Iranian woman and her husband, who incidentally does not speak a word of English.

Racist airport officials are the least of the problems that immediately confront them though, as they discover to their utmost consternation that Babak isn’t on the ground to pick them up as agreed. He is unreachable by phone, his home address is uninhabitable and his University has no idea of his whereabouts. Stuck in a city that is itself going through political turmoil, Pari must face up to a whole new world in her blind resolve to find her son.

An Iranian-Greek national, Etamadi crafts his feature debut as a moody yet involving personal journey that has political implications as well. Europe is constantly held up as an ideal for freedom and civil liberties, but as Pari navigates Athens’ dark underbelly, she discovers a city- and country- at war with itself, especially with regards to economic realities and the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Migrants naturally bear the brunt of these misdirected energies and in a fascinating riotous sequence set on the streets, Pari literally has to go through fire in her quest for answers.

The concept of rebirth is a significant rite of passage for many migrants. This experience is captured in the Persian Sufi verse by the 13th century poet Rumi that inspired the film and Etamedi etches out a complicated path for his heroine carefully, knowing that the end is never as important as the journey itself.

The personal growth and self-discovery that Pari undergoes may be harrowing, but these are also necessary reminders that help her interrogate every major life decision she’s ever made. Yes, the film is a literal search for a missing person, but look underneath and the real discovery is a personal, internal one.

In the early scenes of the film, the camerawork by Claudio Bolivar frames Pari in the background of her own story as she plays the role of a subservient wife. This conformity, she eventually discovers, is a huge part of Babak’s disillusionment with their life in Iran.

As it becomes clear that Pari has to take up a more decisive role if any chance of finding Babak is to be retained, Pari gradually learns to assert herself. A mid-act plot convenience ensures that Etamadi (and the viewer) can focus on the compelling journey of this fascinatingly complex heroine as she seizes ownership of her agency.

Black Milk (Schwarze Milch), the sophomore feature by Mongolian-German filmmaker Uisenma Borchu, offers not one but two personal journeys featuring women questioning themselves and finding even more to life in the vast Mongolian plains.

Playing herself – not for the first time – in a story she also wrote and directed – Borchu revisits the psychological alienation of growing up and identifying as bi-cultural, a theme she has been fixated with her entire career.

Borchu is Wessi, a woman who is separated from her sister at childhood and dispatched to Germany where she grew into adulthood. Leaving a disastrous relationship behind, Wessi makes the long journey to Mongolia to be reunited with her sister Ossi (Gunsmaa Tsogzol, leading a cast of mostly non-professionals) who finds comfort in her existence as a traditional nomad.

It is a change of pace routine for Wessi, but she feels at home with the land and expresses herself in ways not possible for her even back in modern Germany. More knotty is the complicated relationship with the pregnant Ossi, one that requires lots of untangling and a great deal of sensitivity as cultures clash and hidden resentments rise to the surface.

Wessi carries with her the self-absorption of westerners who come back home looking to disrupt everything within their path but she meets her match in Ossi who, tethered self-confidently to the ground, sees little need to change the life she has known.

Thus begins the complex dance between two as they find the core of their union while navigating their sisterly bonds. Black Milk takes Wessi’s side in this interesting dynamic. The story is told mostly from her perspective and she is the film’s provocateur, not only challenging her sister’s strongly held beliefs, but scandalizing the community with her romantic entanglement with Terbish (Terbish Demberel), a single middle-aged man living in a nearby yurt. Her sister disapproves of this rude insertion of self of course.

Black Milk isn’t always played literally and Borchu’s direction makes liberal use of jump cuts to portray the experience as an episodic travelogue, one that retains an air of unfinished business at each major turn. Even though the conclusion is as satisfying as Borchu can manage, considering the span of the story, it manages to leave a question mark that is as blank as the steppe in which the film is set. It is as if Borchu is yielding that the sense of estrangement and struggle for belonging faced by immigrants and their spawn is a life-long preoccupation that has no tidy end.

Such is the fate that creepingly dawns on Xhafer (a terrific Mišel Matičević), the Kosovo born protagonist of Visa Morina’s deeply effective psychological thriller, Exile (Exil). Xhafer lives a seemingly well-adjusted life in Germany’s suburbia with his German wife, Nora (Sandra Hüller) and their three children. On returning home from the engineering lab where he works one day, Xhafer finds a dead rat hanging from the gate, its intent, an unmistakable sign of aggression. This inciting incident kick starts a personal and professional downward spiral for Xhafer as he is convinced beyond doubt that he is a victim of xenophobia. 

Morina’s tense and claustrophobic comic chiller brilliantly confronts a side of the migrant experience that is less depicted on film posing some of the following questions: Is true integration in a foreign land really possible or is it merely a convenient lie we like to tell ourselves to keep up civil appearances? How does one measure an act of aggression and how many of them must a person take before crying out?

Exile’s protagonist isn’t blameless himself and Morina does a fine, almost brutal job of showing with a slight tilt of hand how paranoia and a long spell of living as an aspirational model citizen can color seemingly normal interpretations. Exile walks a tight rope in probing how much of Xhafer’s concerns is legitimate and how much is brought upon by his own prejudices.

This near nervous breakdown also creeps into Xhafer’s relationship with his wife as his increasingly erratic behavior drains the marriage of any potential common empathy that one would expect from a safe space. Exile confronts headlong, the damaging impact of holding on unyielding, to a particular point of view without giving room for compromises, a recurrent trope in the immigration debates worldwide. But Morina has no easy answers, asking audiences to decide for themselves where to place their sympathies according to personal lived experiences.

This challenge is a necessary one and Exile just like Pari and Black Milk details how humans respond to being placed in extreme, unfamiliar conditions. Do they bend or break, rise or fall, adapt or collapse?

Different strokes for different folks.  

Wilfred Okiche
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Steven Yates