august 2023
Festivalul de Film și Istorii Râșnov, 2023
Citiți varianta în română a acestui articol aici.

"Your movie broke my heart. No, no, not the film itself, but the way you chose to tell your story," I tell to the director Guido Hendrikx after about 20 minutes in front of the Amza Pellea cinema in Râșnov and I give him a hug. "We were sitting next to each other, Pocahontas, I even saw you when you started crying, but honestly, I wasn't expecting you'd get so emotional" he says.

Nor did I expect his film, Stranger in Paradise, to be so good that it can not be placed in a strict category (documentary/fiction/docufiction), nor narrated in such a way as to fully capture the paradoxical dualism of its approach to the subject - the almost dichotomous duo of cynicism / tenderness.

Documentaries generally have a moral purpose - to teach the viewer something. In this case, Hendrikx seems to be stating his film's thesis right from the prologue, a part that's eloquent for the three acts that follow. But let's take it one step at a time.

The beginning of the film is, as I said above, a prologue consisting of montage of different archives, animations, and clever parallels. For example, a sequence from the Lumière brothers' film L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is mirrored by recent footage of trains overloaded with refugees seeking to escape from countries facing various crises. The prologue is thus a kind of thesis-montage-artistic-voice-over about Europe, Africa and refugees, and the conflict between the hegemon and the slave.

The premise of the film is quite interesting - somewhere in Lampedusa, Sicily, in a classroom there are a teacher and some students. The teacher is white, the students are black. The teacher is an actor, the students are real life migrants. According to the teacher, he is a northerner and his students are southerners. In all three acts following the prologue, Guido Hendrikx decides to use the same space, as if in a superb illustration of the romanian expression that goes as follows - the man sanctifies the place (which would translate in English to A good farmer makes a good farm) - conversely, the non-human desanctifies the holy place. I do have to mention that by "holy place" I don't necessarily mean a place of worship, but a (profane) place where the man sacralizes his own ideals and dreams, desires and perceptions. Such as, in our case, a country - the Netherlands - which is given different meanings by the thoughts of each refugee in that class about it, be it a place of salvation from the clutches of the war, a place of economic salvation, a place of salvation from an educational path, etc.

The first act portrays our teacher (Valentijn Dhaenens, an actor with extraordinary artistic skills and ways of expression) as a true right-wing advocate, an advocate of the devil who vehemently discourages refugees, inducing them to believe that there is not enough room for them. Although the migrants' English is sometimes not that great, his message manages to get through. You are not welcome, and you won't be any time soon. How does he manage to say/proof/do that? By the power of numbers. A migrant costs the Dutch state approximately 26,000 euros a year. Some 1.3 million migrants come to Europe every year, only 45% of whom manage to find work. "Why shouldn't you stay in your own countries and build a better future for them instead of coming to us?" the teacher asks his students at the end of the first act. It's heartbreaking to hear migrants promise that they will work and not be a burden on the state, that they will become valuable citizens, while the ruthless statistics remain the same.

In the second act, almost everything changes, the only constants remaining being the statistics. Now the professor seems more like a left-wing idealist, who believes that migrants have a reason to come to the old continent, that their dreams need to be supported by a slightly bolder Europe. After the first act, the second comes as a breath of fresh air, especially as you realise that the professor is actually an actor. However, one wonders if this approach is also reprehensible, as recklessness can lead to the greatest misfortune. And, in essence, the numbers don't lie and, sadly, they don't seem to change.

The third act, perhaps the most important of all, features the interviews. Hendrikx chooses to film them in static shots, with the characters pre-exposed in profile. In this case, the professor applies the law, choosing those who are eligible for a residence permit without taking into consideration his own beliefs, explaining in simple terms the reasons for their acceptance/rejection. On the other hand, a subliminal message that we might glean from a closer look at this act would be that, in essence, these people are nothing more than numbers for the European administration.

I was saying something above about Valentijn Dhaenens and his remarkable acting abilities, and now I feel the need to elaborate a bit. An exponent of a divided Europe (or at least that's how I perceived him, and probably how Hendrikx thought of him), all the professor's ways of acting towards migrants, be it cynically, idealistically or indifferently, coexist in a performance full of nuances, of clues, to which is added a right tone, appropriate to each character he enters into dialogue with. It should be noted, however, that Valentijn Dhaenens is not only to be admired for his acting, but also for his other skills as co-writer of the script, along with Guido Hendrikx.

One observation I would make of the film is that, if we are pioneering to build a society tolerant of migrants (how funny that sounds!), let's be pioneers all the way, paying more attention to how the relationships between characters develop, not necessarily how they are by default. Moreover, I think that in the final credits, they should've given the full names of those who participated in making the film, not just the first names.

The epilogue depicts Valentijn Dhaenens, this time being himself, not the teacher, randomly approached on the street for a cigarette by a black man, then another one coming and another one and so on, only for them to finally ask him to take them back to his home country of Holland.

Maybe, in fact, the film hurt me because I saw myself in it, as well as ourselves as a whole (the society). Although it's a slightly forced comparison, I would venture to say that the attitude of the teacher in Act I is probably similar to the attitude of my parents and grandparents towards the subject of migrants, the attitude in Act II similar to mine, while the attitude in Act III (and the most correct one, in my opinion) will probably be the one adopted (I hope) by the generations that come after mine. For neither I nor my parents know how to be good hosts to (un)welcomed guests - they are too unempathetic, while I'm too naive. As always, the solution is the middle way.

Perhaps Hendrikx set out to do just that by creating such a striking antithesis between the 3 parts of his film. Using the incompatibility of these worldviews, he seems to argue for the clichéd (but so hard to implement!) solution of compromise.

I won't forget to say a few words about the soundtrack of the film, the songs being the ones that made the transition between the 3 parts (+prologue & epilogue). The choice of songs was, in my humble opinion, an extremely sensitive and intelligent one at the same time. Sure, maybe it's strictly subjective, but the pairing of Hendrikx's film with Leonard Cohen's The Stranger Song seemed simply ingenious to me. (That's why I used a fragment of this song for the title of the article.)

Finally, I would add that Hendrikx's film is a must-see, because it is not only a call for empathy, but also shows you how barbaric you, the European "civilized man" can be, you, the one who got a winning ticket in the lottery of life when you were born on the old continent. In addition, it's also a story about hopes that are sometimes dashed, about potential changes that rarely happen, about trust that is lost, about broken hearts and broken destinies. Just like Cohen's The Stranger Song.

Thank you, Guido, for this amazing movie!

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