Three Films on the Refugee Crisis

in 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Kaan Karsan

Europe has been dealing with a grand crisis for a long time and in each case, the continent is in a conflict not only with the ‘refugees’ but with its own ideals and values as well. The demographic paradigm-shift both in the Middle East and in Africa has depolarized the political structure of Europe in the last decades, in a place which used to be the source of pride of the modern European civilization. While the ex-marginal right-wing politicians were becoming popular again, the unwanted visitors of Europe struggled with different faces of the power and sought a psychological belonging to survive in these foreign lands.

Of course for art in general and cinema in particular, it was impossible to be oblivious to the recent political developments in the world. Also, film festivals were the showcases, which were expressing statements via their line-ups and selections in parallel to the political journal of the world. Obviously, Karlovy Vary is one of them. This year there were three films in the festival’s main competition which were directly or indirectly concerning themselves with the refugee crisis and local people’s perspectives about refugees.

Birds Are Singing in Kigali, which is directed by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze was about a Rwandan young woman, who was ‘saved’ by a Polish middle-aged woman during the bloody Rwandan genocide back in 1994. In their film, the Krauze’s use a disturbing visual language which portrays Europe, and particularly Poland, to be a specific, pale and unwelcoming home.

On the other hand, Claudine, the Rwandan woman is not eager to play the role of a victim, which was given to her by the political context and her ‘designed’ status in Europe. The directors also portray their European protagonist as a traumatized anti-character (She was also in Rwanda and had her own Rwandan experience), who also refuses to be a caretaker. So in that sense, Birds Are Singing in Kigali was breaking the taboos by excluding sure-to-happen mercifulness of the Western civilization and digging the concept of being a victim. So, the honest and wounding approach of the directors can be considered as the long-awaited unique, groundbreaking perspective towards the refugee politics in Europe. There was no home to shelter for both of the women in this film.

Another film in the competition, Czech director Peter Bebjak’s The Line, had a more mainstream touch. The story takes us to the Slovak-Ukrainian border where the significant part of the cigarette smuggling within Europe happens. At that time Slovakia is about to join the EU, so the gang of smugglers are being concerned about their future ‘projects’. After a series of unfortunate events, they found themselves in an anxious situation because now they have to smuggle people from the border.

The Line has a lightweight approach about the political situation in Europe but it also has quite interesting appeals to discuss. In the eyes of the audience, the gang loses its sympathy, legitimacy and innocence when they accept this last and dark mission. The film suddenly changes its direction and becomes darker and darker every minute, when it comes to the human trafficking. After this point Bebjak just gives up on humor and follows a more serious visual language. Afghan refugees, who have escaped from the carnage in the Middle East, are about to come up against the corrupted face of the state power and violence.

In Turkish director Onur Saylak’s directorial debut, More, again, we observe the story from the side of the human smugglers. Ahad is collaborating with some sailors, who have been smuggling Syrian refugees to Europe. Before the delivery process, he hides them in his basement, feeds them like animals and, when he wants, he also rapes them. Furthermore, he is supported by a rapist police officer in exchange for women. So he can hide his criminal trails. His son, Gaza, secretly studies for university exams, secretly has dreams about escaping from this cruel reality and secretly makes plans. However, his father has an unbending authority. Moreover, he has no sense of love either.

By observing his father, Gaza starts to lose his own dignity. Actually, the only times he starts to act like a normal human being is when he is with those refugees who are trying to breath in their basement and in the middle of the journey to their hope. This is when he feels love and the pain, which has been brought by the love. In More, when the child protagonist understands there’s no way to get out of this harsh reality, he starts to transform into his father. With uncompromising methods of telling a story, Onur Saylak embodies a world of terror, in which the refugees turn into some kind of assets and being treated like animals. “Animals!” they shout to Ahad, in Arabic. He never understands.

This is not a coincidence that all these three films have been screened in the same festival; further to say, in the same competition. Many people say, “The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself”. However, in the last decades of Europe, there are a lot of things that don’t change but need to change. The directors on the stage of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival clearly made this statement.

Edited by Steven Yates