Last year, around the same time, many of us streaming out of a morning press screening from the Palast, the main venue of the Berlinale, were convinced we had seen the Golden Bear winner. The film was Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rosi, and it turned a quiet yet powerful searchlight on the refugee crisis. It tells the story of people who live on Lampedusa, an island off Sicily, and their conflicted relationship with the hundreds of potential immigrants running away from the warn-torn zones in the Middle-East.
As so many of us had hoped and predicted, it turned out to be the big winner of 2016.
A year on, it’s possible the same story may be repeated. The much-awaited Aki Kaurismaki film, Toivon Tuolla Puolen (The Other Side of Hope) evoked the same kind of reaction from amongst the packed audience. The Finnish film, which puts displaced people and their fraught lives at the centre of the narrative, is a very different kind of film but speaks of the same thing — that we are, in a sense, refugees, and we are looking for love.
It is just the kind of film juries love, which takes up a big, complicated subject and helps us make sense of it through intimate portraits.
Kaurismaki’s universe — for those who are familiar with his work — is inhabited by a sense of dourness and desolation. But in this film, which comes at the mid-section of the 10-day-long Berlinale, he leavens
the chilliness with light, finding humour in the unlikeliest of situations and leaves us both sombre and cautiously optimistic.
In its opening frame, a face blackened with coal dust emerges from the ground. Within a few minutes, we learn that the man is a refugee from Syria, seeking asylum in Finland. In a series of deceptively plain yet powerful frames, the director establishes the real tragedy on the ground: the Finnish authorities do not find him a suitable candidate for asylum and repatriation is on the cards.
A parallel narrative featuring a middle-aged local and his tale of displacement — a broken marriage and a foundering business — tells us that you can be a stranger in your own country.
The connection, forged between the desperate Syrian and the Finnish businessman, is fumbling but real, droll yet serious. It is that link which makes us believe that things can get better, and that all problems can have a solution if there’s a will, collective as well as individual.
In some places, you are laughing so hard that you forget how deadly serious the crisis still is, and you wonder if turning so much of it into darkly comical may be, in a way, taking some of the sting away. And then you realise that it’s a smart thing that the director does, because laughter can lead us out of the abyss.
It can heal.