Stranger in Paradise

Stranger in Paradise

I kept on looking for someone like Ismail, a Darfur refugee that I know,  while watching Stranger in Paradise, the Dutch film about migrants in Europe that opens this year’s IDFA . Ismail is a Darfur refugee who has a background in engineering who fled the Sudanese civil war when his village was destroyed. When I first met him in Tel Aviv in 2007 he had pieced together a home computer from spare parts of both Apple and Microsoft computers. He later went on to build his own computer business. Not all of the more than a million African and Asian migrants that came to Europe in the past few years may have Ismail’s skills, but surely a fair number do. You would never know that though, based on the submissive and passive migrant characters that populate director Guido Hendrikx’s film.

Hendrikx’s main focus in the film is actually not on the migrants themselves but on the attitude of Europeans towards them. The film is a set in a fictional classroom in Italy where a teacher played by Dutch actor Valentijn Dhaenens confronts about a dozen migrants who want to gain asylum in The Netherlands. The film has a very documentary feel to it, replete with shaky, fuzzy-focus,  handheld  shots, uneven cuts and no music (except in the transitions). But the film  is completely staged, something that  is hard to know without reading the publicity material – and potentially quite misleading.

The main part of the  film is divided into  three acts. In Act 1 Dhaenens plays the role of the European bad guy par excellence. He harangues the migrants about how Europe cannot afford to absorb them, pointing out that it is costing the EU 26,000 Euros per migrant to look after each of them. He even humiliates one of the migrants by having him multiply on the blackboard 26,000 x 11 – the number of migrants in the classroom. Dhaenens reprimands them for not staying in their native land in order  to  fight for their country’s freedom — the way his father did in World War II. Dhaenens goes on to trap one of the Muslim migrants into inadvertently acknowledging that Muslim immigrants will be more loyal to Muslim religious  laws than to European state laws.

In Act 2 Dhaenens suddenly becomes the European good guy. He is overcome by the guilt of Europe’s colonial past in which Europeans depleted Africa’s gold and other resources through slave labor. He cites Harvard University and other studies showing that if the borders between Europe and the rest of the world were eliminated the world economy would increase by a staggering 70 percent. He commends the migrants for their courage and describes them as explorers and adventurers.

In Act 3 Dhaenens plays the role of the technocrat. He demonstrates how the current EU rules determine whether or not an asylum seeker can gain entry to The Netherlands or not, on the basis of specific criteria devoid of human compassion. So he expels from the classroom the migrants who have already been fingerprinted in Italy – they must remain in Italy as it is their point of entry. He also sends away those who indicate that they have come for mere economic gain. Those who face political oppression, including homosexuals, however, are allowed to stay (in the metaphoric classroom) as they face political oppression.

Stranger in Paradise does indeed encapsulate many of the attitudes about the migrant crisis prevalent among Europeans today.  Having the same actor play the role of both the good guy and the bad guy is perhaps a thought-provoking idea, as it implies that all Europeans have the potential for both inclinations. Unfortunately for the sake of the film’s balance, Dhaenens happens to be far more convincing in the bad guy role than in the good guy one.

Guido Hendrikx , in his Director’s Statement  indicates that he based the film on a visit he made to the Italian island of Lampedusa where he “ was struck by the power relations: how those with happiness treat the desire for happiness in others… what I see is the desire for happiness of these others getting dashed against waves of European self-satisfaction and self-interest.”

Hendrikx may have succeeded in showing “European self-satisfaction and self-interest” but it is regrettable  that he did not give any of the migrant characters a sense of depth or show them in an empowering way. In a telling scene during Act II when Dhaenens asks the migrants  to close their eyes and try to envision a future with a job and a house in Europe, it is as if they are incapable of doing so on their own. When asked what they know about the Netherlands , the migrants, in a  caricatured way, don’t seem to   know much more than  the names of several Dutch football players. Even when the migrants  describe some of the difficult situations they have faced, such as being threatened by the Taliban, they do so in a way that draws little sympathy.

Stranger in Paradise is also lacking in any sort of aesthetic appeal. Almost all of the film’s 72 minute duration takes place inside a barren classroom and the only action is  tedious banter – something that is unlikely to hold the attention of  a wide audience. There are a few transitions shots in which vaguely related songs from singers such as Neil Young and Leonard Cohen are added. But the poetic impact of these songs, only underlines the lack of any poignant  film language throughout the rest of the film.

It is easy to understand why the IDFA organizers wanted to have the migrant crisis front and center on the festival stage. It’s an important issue that deserves the attention of documentary filmmakers. Let’s hope that future attempts provide a better-rounded approach.

Bernard Dichek