'The Other Side of Hope': A Gloomy Yet Comic Syrian Refugee Story

Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki tells of the plight of refugees in a poignant, deeply human film that artfully blends sadness and comedy

A scene from 'The Other Side of Hope.'
Lev Cinema

In the Helsinki refugee center where he ends up after fleeing Syria in search of political asylum, Khaled (Sherwan Haji) gets some advice from a new friend, Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), a refugee from Iraq. To assimilate into Finnish society, Mazdak says, what matters is less learning the language than smiling and looking cheerful. People who smile are usually allowed to stay, while sad-looking refugees are deported. But don’t go overboard, Mazdak warns Khaled: don’t smile while walking down the street, because people will think you are crazy. In short, it’s all about balance: looking depressed will make you intolerable; looking too happy will make the bureaucrats handling your request doubtful of your predicament, and then they might kick you out.

The same difficult balance is typical of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s films, including this one, “The Other Side of Hope,” which won the director’s prize at the Berlin Film Festival and is now being screened in Israel. Most of Kaurismaki’s movies – from “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989), “The Match Factory Girl” (1990) and “La Vie de Boheme” (1992) to “Drifting Clouds” (1996), “The Man without a Past” (2002) and “Lights in the Dusk” (2006) – have a distinctive tone that roams between gloom and gleefulness, and between narrative stability and instability. All this gives Kaurismaki’s work an off-kilter feel; its uniqueness lies in the fact that he does not stage a conflict between the gloomy and the cheerful, or between the stable and the unstable, but rather depicts them as complementary parts of the human and existential reality on the screen. Sadness and comedy blend, the numbness of many characters gives way to occasional emotional outbursts, and the movies themselves strive for an alienated feel, but then use it to sweep us into their human, social and economic reality.

Not all of Kaurismaki’s films aim for this tone in equal measure. His previous picture, the 2011 “Le Havre,” which also dealt with illegal immigration to Europe – in that case, to France – was an unusually conventional work for him, a fact that did not diminish the value and validity of this poignant, deeply human film. “The Other Side of Hope,” which continues what he began in “Le Havre,” takes Kaurismaki back to Finland, with its stylized mix of color and grayness and its particular absurdities of life, and while the result is not as wild as some of his early pictures, it once again crafts a fractured reality in Kaurismaki’s “fractured” way and yet manages to reach his unique cohesion of narrative and style.

“The Other Side of Hope” has two main protagonists with seemingly nothing in common. One is Khaled, whose entire family died in Syria except for his sister, from whom he got separated at one of the border crossings on the way to Europe. He arrives in Finland almost by chance, having hidden aboard a coal freighter. At the beginning of the movie he emerges from his hiding place covered in coal, a sight that strikes an ironic note, given that he is already a dark-skinned man stepping into an extremely blond country. He wants to receive political asylum and find his sister, and the film’s first part follows his efforts to achieve this through the tangled refugee bureaucracy. Kaurismaki, incidentally, chooses to depict the officials who handle Khaled’s case not as cold or ruthless but rather as law-abiding and even empathetic, in their chilly Scandinavian way.

The second hero is Wilkstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), who at the beginning of the movie leaves his wife (Kaija Pakarinen); she watches him depart rather indifferently, smoking a cigarette with a shot of whiskey by her side and her hair in rollers. Fifty-something Wilkstrom is a travellingsalesman of men’s shirts, who is tired of his dead-end job. He wants to dump the inventory he’s been struggling to sell and instead open the restaurant of his dreams.

Humor and severity

The film simultaneously tracks his story and that of Khaled, sometimes cutting from one to the other with deliberate bluntness. It’s obvious that eventually the young, delicate-faced refugee on the run and the severe-looking but generous Finn will meet, and indeed they do. Wilkstrom manages to buy a restaurant, whose staff seems oblivious and frozen in time. It is a colorful but charmless place, with a large picture of Jimi Hendrix on the wall and a thoroughly unappealing menu (sardines, for example, are served in their original tin can).

The humor of “The Other Side of Hope” – which reaches a peak when Wilkstrom, in an effort to save the restaurant, temporarily turns it into a sushi place, although he and his staff have no idea how to make sushi and end up serving what they make to a group of Japanese tourists – does not restrict the severity with which the movie explores the distress of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe. But Kaurismaki handles it all in a measured way, including the violence that enters the story when Khaled is attacked in the street by thugs from the so-called Liberation Army of Finland.

The film’s moderation makes it more powerful than any full-frontal, agenda-driven attack could have been. Kaurismaki’s ability to wander so elegantly between the gloomy, the comic and the absurd is actually an efficient representation of the reality he depicts, where a refugee searching for his sister meets a Finnish citizen whose life has seemed to lack all meaning and validity. This reality seems to totter constantly on the edge of a cliff, but there are bonds that form between the characters and turn them into a community, a microcosm of the larger society around them.

The occasional bursts of humor, which sometimes surprise us, the excellent dialogue, the design of the movie’s physical reality, and the inclusion of songs and musical performances with a distinctly local feel – all these make “The Other Side of Hope” into a work that leads from one turn to the next without ever making us complacent about the unfolding plot. It’s a pleasure to watch such a movie, which breaks sharply away from the formulas of most contemporary filmmaking and brings us into a cinematic reality where the alienated and the deeply moving collide.

Above all, “The Other Side of Hope” is full of humanity that is not sentimental or saccharine, but essential. What is that other side of hope the title refers to? Is it despair, or an even stronger hope, or some combination of the two? Kaurismaki’s movie leaves this question open, while providing us with a cinematic experience that includes the very best of his artistic ability.