A Piece of Paper

in 53rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Sonia Laszlo

How do we define ourselves? And how do others categorise us? Far too often, one basis for such classification is our passport. Equipped with the necessary visas and all kinds of other sealed papers and cards, it sets the base for all kinds of decisions that ultimately influence our lives for better or worse. So, what if one hasn’t been issued one of these official documents? Most of the world’s population feels like they are lacking “amulets of the 21st century” anyway.

After Welcome to Sarajevo, director Michael Winterbottom deals with another crisis facing the world. He lifts faces out of the one million refugees a year that entrust their lives into the hands of smugglers in order to get to the “Paradise” of Europe or America. In a documentary style, the talented and unique filmmaker tells the story of Jamal and Enayatullah, two Afghans who flee to the Pakistani city of Peshawar. But they are not wanted there. Or anywhere else on their way to the West, partially along the ancient silk road. Jamal, the orphaned teenager and his cousin Enayatullah form a small unit that drifts along in the chaos of countries, languages, smugglers, immigration and beautiful, daunting landscape. The pieces of documentary, graphics and ad-libbed scenes brilliantly blend into one, supported by a passionate soundtrack from the Italian composer Dario Marianelli.

Often it is not even necessary to read the movie’s subtitles, as the human drama of the situations is all too familiar. Despite the odds our two heroes come up against, their situation suggests that humans are still an homogeneous species. And how disturbing it was for me to sit in a warm theatre, while experiencing on screen the high price others must pay for basic comfort.

There was never a completed script to the film, just a rough guideline and the energy of countless stories, experiences and emotions that were researched during the preparation of the film. Life wrote this movie’s script.

And yes life, in this case, is directed and given its baselines from the politicians of the countries that people immigrate to. Particularly in times like these, the question on what grounds to base decisions is up in the air. Europe’s immigration policies tend towards more and more restrictions and more “pieces of paper” that give you identity. An effort to revise the system has been made, but essentially politics has failed to deal sufficiently with the issue.

And no, just in case you were wondering, it was not September 11th that inspired the filmmakers. They had the idea before 9/11 and the incidents made them want to bring the material to the screen even more. Maybe you will see immigrants in a different light after watching this movie. What is certain is that you will have watched a moving story.

Sonia Laszlo