Arts movie news

The other side of hope

Kaurismäki’s film makes a powerful statement about the Syrian refugee crisis as it follows the lives of two men attempting to escape their troubled pasts

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Khaled accompanied by his likely, and unlikely, counterparts Waldemar and Mazdak
Courtesy of Janus Films

The Other Side of Hope
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Written by Aki Kaurismäki
Starring Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen
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The Other Side of Hope directly addresses the Syrian refugee crisis as it tells the intertwined stories of an aspiring restaurateur, Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen), and a Syrian refugee, Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), as they both attempt to shed the lives they once lived in hopes of starting anew.

Waldemar is a businessman and poker extraordinaire attempting to distance himself from his alcoholic wife. Serious, stone-faced, and clean cut, Waldemar gambles his way to $60,000 during a tense underground game of poker, which he ultimately uses to buy a failing restaurant and a disgruntled waitstaff.

While we see Waldemar’s story directly unfold through Kaurismäki’s lense, we hear most of Khaled’s story as he recants it in a harshly lit immigration office. Khaled, once a mechanic from Aleppo, found his life and family torn apart after his home was destroyed in a bomb strike. After losing almost all of his family members, including his fianceé, mother, and father, Khaled and his sister escape Syria. Their escape is filled with chaos and violence, but fortunately, a few good men help them along. Along the way, Khaled and his sister are separated in a chaotic shuffle. Eventually, Khaled finds himself alone in Finland where his quest for asylum and his lost sister is stymied by the violence and hatred he faces from groups like the Finland Liberation Army.

Khaled’s story is supplemented with the tale of Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), a refugee from Iraq who has spent a year in Finland. Mazdak takes Khaled under his wing, letting Khaled use his cellphone to try and locate his sister and giving him advice about the asylum process. After a night out, Mazdak tells Khaled that he feels he cannot bring joy to anyone in Finland and that he feels very stagnant in his life. However, he still must continue to put on a brave face because, as he expresses to Khaled, the melancholy refugees are the first to be sent home. Together, Khaled and Mazdak’s stories provide a glimpse into the lives of refugees, from the horrors of their initial escape to the difficulties of acclimating to a new life.

Throughout his journey, Khaled finds a likely friend in Mazdak and a highly unlikely friend in Waldemar. After the two men meet in a dark alley and exchange punches, Waldemar takes Khaled in, giving him a home, a job at the restaurant, and a chance to find his sister. Waldemar’s initially curt and mechanical nature is transformed as he shows kindness and compassion towards Khaled.

The Other Side of Hope is not exceptional in its swift-moving plot or knock-out acting performances, but rather in its thought-provoking realism. Kaurismäki’s dark and grim film makes no attempts to sugar coat the reality that is the Syrian refugee crisis. While Khaled’s and Mazdak’s stories are powerful enough alone, Kaurismäki truly drives home the severity and complexity of the refugee crisis using a handful of effective techniques. Many come in the form of powerful juxtapositions. Immediately after Khaled’s request for asylum in Finland is denied on the grounds that Aleppo is not actually a dangerous place, Khaled is seen hopelessly and emotionlessly watching an extended news report covering the violence and destruction of his hometown, Aleppo. However, Kaurismäki punctuates the harrowing details of Khaled’s story with deadpan humor, such as Waldemar’s decision to transform his struggling business into a sushi restaurant, which provides added realism and depth to the characters. In addition, Kaurismäki’s film demonstrates small glimpses of optimism that promise some sort of hope for both Waldemar and Khaled. The touches of quirky humor and occasional hope alleviate some of the severity of the topic, without taking away from Kaurismäki’s depiction of the refugee crisis. Overall, The Other Side of Hope is a worthwhile film that will prove to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking for its viewers.