THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (Toivon Tuolla Puolen). Starring: Sherman Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Niroz Haji. Directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 100 min.
This Finnish, subtitled comedy-drama tells the story of a businessman who meets an asylum-seeker from Syria, and their lives intertwine. The film won the Silver Bear in the Best Direction category at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.
Khaled (Sherman Haji) is a refugee from Syria who travels to Finland illegally onboard a cargo freighter. He fled Aleppo after his home was bombed and his family (but not his sister) was killed in the missile attack. He turns himself into the police when his ship docks at Helsinki, and applies for asylum, but his application is denied by the authorities in a dreadful distortion of justice. He has no idea where his sister, Miriam (Niroz Haji) is - she was lost during their journey, while they were both escaping the Syrian Civil War. Khaled manages to escape from the refugee centre just before he is due to be deported, and after walking the streets of Helsinki, he meets a wealthy, grouchy Businessman, Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), in an alleyway behind Waldemar’s newly purchased, seafood restaurant, which he has purchased from poker winnings.
Waldemar has shifted from being a travelling salesman to try his hand at gambling, but he doesn’t know a lot about how to properly manage what he has brought with the money he won. When Waldemar finds Khaled hiding behind his restaurant, the two men throw punches at each other, and then reconcile. Waldemar senses Khaled’s need, and he offers Khaled a job in his business, which Khaled accepts. The restaurant staff welcome Khaled, and learning about his plight they help him get new papers. Miriam is found, and, together, Waldemar and Khaled hire a truck to smuggle Miriam safely to Helsinki. But now Miriam is in the same situation that Khaled was in.
The movie is interspersed with some delightful scenes on how “not” to run a seafood restaurant. Waldemar’s staff think that anyone ordering sardines for dinner means that the diner has to eat the sardines from a freshly opened can, and they have no idea how to serve Sushi to a room full of Japanese diners.
In this movie there are many coincidences in the development of the film’s plot-line. The comedy associated with how Waldemar runs his restaurant affords comic relief from the bureaucratic nightmare and tragedy of asylum seeking, and the movie manages both plot-line situations deftly. Waldemar is a lost soul who has walked out of life with an alcoholic wife. Khaled has failed in his own life too, and joins society as a lost soul in the asylum-seeking world. Both of them desperately need help, and they find each other.
This is a touching human drama that is directed with enormous sensitivity by Aki Kaurismäki. His direction is utterly humane, full of empathy, and quite funny. Both Waldemar and Khaled have fled their homes for very different reasons: Khaled was trapped in a war-torn country and finds solace with friends willing to help him, and Waldemar has fled from a wife to whom he eventually returns.
The film engrossingly captures the complexities of the human condition. No-one knows how to serve or cook food at Waldemar’s restaurant, and Finland’s immigration system looks just as hopelessly chaotic. With deadpan humour, the film delivers strong truths about how asylum seekers see their immigration experience, and the film’s has a lot to say about the absurdities of literal-minded bureaucrats who make judgements about human lives they don’t understand.
Acting in this movie is very effective in highlighting the satire that lies behind life’s inhumanities. People treat each other very seriously in this movie, even in ridiculous situations, and this is a deliberate ploy on Aki Kaurismaki’s part to comment on life satirically. On many levels, the film’s deals with difficulties of human survival. It looks for optimism in its search, and it carries the important and uplifting message that, despite terrible inhumanity along the way, life can lead one to finding incredible goodness in other people. It is goodness that lies on the other side of hope.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 29th., 2018