Stranger in Paradise: A blunt and honest look at Europe and refugees
by Vladan Petkovic
- Guido Hendrikx's feature debut, which recently won an award at Biografilm, is an unflinching essay film walking us through refugee asylum hell in a classroom exercise
Opening with a short history of refugees through a montage of archive material and animations, with the Lumiere brothers' Train Pulling into a Station edited in parallel with images of trains overloaded with refugees from the ongoing crisis, the Dutch docufiction hybrid Stranger in Paradise [+see also:
film profile] tells us right away which attitude it adopts: those on the run are simply called "Southerners", and those more or less welcoming of them are "Northerners".
The first feature by Dutch filmmaker Guido Hendrikx (whose paedophile-themed short Among Us stirred the festival circuit in 2014) then starts with its formally rigorous exercise. Almost the whole film is set in one classroom, where Teacher (played by actor Valentijn Dhaenens, last seen in Waldstille [+see also:
interview: Martijn Maria Smits
film profile]) welcomes two groups of asylum seekers, refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Taking a position of tough authority, the Teacher explains in blunt, no-nonsense terms how Europeans see them: as unneeded guests and possibly a threat to their way of life.
The next group gets a more sympathetic and optimistic teacher, one who explains how courageous people like them are necessary to Europe, and how much the world would gain economically if all the borders were erased. But this daydream (there is an actual scene in which Teacher asks his "pupils" to imagine such a world, and they close their eyes to contemplate this beautiful idea) cannot last long. The next, most poignant phase starts: the interviews.
In a fixed shot from a profile point of view, Hendrikx shows us Teacher sitting at a desk, calmly but firmly interrogating his subjects one by one and deciding, according to Dutch law, who is eligible to stay or not. He explains in simple terms the reasons for the decisions, which hardly ever deal with their specific problems. These people are just numbers to the European administrations. Can you guess how many of them get a positive answer, out of some two dozen that we get the chance to meet?
While the Teacher is a role, played with great dedication by Dhaenens, the refugees are real, and they were told that this was merely an exercise. But the emotions on their faces, the arguments they have for their cases, their dreams and their desires are just as real as if it had been an actual selection process.
Stranger in Paradise is a bold statement, an unflinching look at oneself for both Europeans and their (un)wanted guests. The former will see an ugly, selfish image, and the latter a profoundly disillusioning one.
A kind of natural extension to the wave of refugee crisis-themed films, Stranger in Paradise does not have the humanness of Fire at Sea [+see also:
interview: Gianfranco Rosi
film profile] nor the optimism of 69 Minutes of 86 Days [+see also:
film profile], but neither does it have the desperation of Last Men in Aleppo [+see also:
film profile]. What it does have is courage and, most importantly, honesty.
After its world premiere at the IDFA, where it won the Award for Best Dutch Documentary, Stranger in Paradise went on to screen at 25 festivals, garnering awards in Tirana, Tbilisi and Madrid, among other events. It also won the Hera “New Talents” Award at the recent Biografilm Film Festival in Bologna, Italy (see the news). It was produced by Zeppers Film in co-production with VPRO, and Cat&Docs has the international rights.
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