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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2018

GoCritic! Review: Via Carpatia


- At GoCritic! Susanne Gottlieb reviews the Polish-Czech-Macedonian film directed by Klara Kochańska and Kasper Bajon, screening in East of the West section of Karlovy Vary

GoCritic! Review: Via Carpatia

Walking across the deserted area of a former Greek refugee camp, strewn with abandoned clothes and marked by a barbed wire perimeter, Polish filmmakers Klara Kochańska’s and Kasper Bajon’s Via Carpatia [+see also:
film review
interview: Klara Kochańska
film profile
takes you right to the heart of the migrant crisis in their feature-length directorial debut. Except that no refugees are to be seen. Avoiding exploitative clichés, Kochańska and Bajon travel to the south-eastern border of Europe to focus their camera on the helplessnessof those safe within the self-imposed borders.

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Set during the refugee crisis in 2016, the film focuses on the daily life of Piotr (Piotr Borowski) and Julia (Julia Kijowska), dominated by their pet tortoise and chitchat with the neighbours. The only awkward moment is the mailman asking about the origins of Hahad — their surname. Piotr’s estranged father is Syrian, who now is stuck in a refugee camp along the Greek-Macedonian border. Piotr’s mother requests that her son and his wife go south to smuggle him back across the border. Instead of going on vacation, the two make off to the border.

The road trip that unfolds during the first half of the film not only takes its characters closer to the core of the crisis, it also heads to the core of their dynamic. Real-life couple Borowski and Kijowska create a tense interaction that varies between gently washing each other’s hair with bottled water in run-down hotels and snapping at each other over familiar petty conflicts, such as women having to pee a lot and men refusing to use GPS. The handheld camerawork and repeated over-shoulder shots make the characters’ interactions very intimate: their anxiety drips through every frame.

While in dramatic terms the conflict starts wearing thin, at the Macedonian border Via Carpatia’s stronger half kicks in. Julia, who is at first reluctant to help her father-in-law, begins to see a silver lining in the undertaking, namely graduating from a tortoise owner to the foster parent of a Syrian orphan. “You can buy a Syrian for a few hundred euros,” she tells her husband. Piotr on the other hand grows increasingly weary over a man he comes to realise he barely knows. “Do you remember him?” Julia asks. “He once threw a flip flop at me,” Piotr answers.

It is to the film’s credit that the presence of the unseen refugees can be felt in most scenes. Over the course of Piotr and Julia’s road trip, Kochanská and Bajon draw attention to Arabic writings on train station walls, and to hotels making sure they are not accused of hiding refugees. Ironically, the cinematography grows more colourful and cheerful the closer Piotr and Julia get to the location of human tragedy: in Macedonia itself, locals drink wine and discuss football matches without much trace of the immediate unfolding crisis.

When continuing their search in Greece and facing the dilemma of whether to continue looking for Piotr’s father, they pass a sign saying “Hope” in monstrous white letters. Given the film’s downbeat turn, one might assume that ultimately such hope won’t pay off to any of the parties involved. Rather, peace will have to be found in the decisions made in a situation defined simultaneously by helplessness and an indifference as to its outcome.  

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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