Refugees in Toronto: Reporting from the international film festival
Still from "The House By the Sea."

TORONTO — Two master filmmakers have again addressed the issue of immigration and refugees and the tragic toll it takes on nations and the immigrants themselves. Both films were featured at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and they couldn’t be more divergent in style.

Famed Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki can somehow find humor in the most tragic of subjects. His approach has been termed “hopeful cynicism.” He has said he’s directed half his films drunk and the other half sober, yet nobody can tell them apart. He’s refused coming to the United States to attend award ceremonies (Oscars and the New York Film Festival, to name two) because he says he can’t party in a nation that is always in a state of war somewhere in the world.

Laughing can certainly be a release of tension and in the dramedy The Other Side of Hope we laugh at a desperate but sympathetic Syrian refugee trying to understand the craziness of Finland and his newfound homelessness. Characters who smoke and speak few words, 50s blues and rock soundtracks and humorous tragedy mark Kaurismäki’s work. His Man Without a Past (2002) and Le Havre (2011) both won several top prizes. Le Havre was about an African refugee who shows up at the famed port city in France and is harbored by sympathetic locals—who smoke and talk little. Absolutely an artist of unique talent, Aki Kaurismäki should not be avoided.

On the other hand, French master realist and class-conscious filmmaker from Marseille, Robert Guédiguian, has a totally different manner of handling serious issues and humor. Many of his films take place in his hometown and address real workers’ struggles in the Mediterranean port. His signature style is to use the same principal actors for most all his films. His wife Ariane Ascaride, Gérard Meylan, and Jean-Pierre Darroussin have gone on to develop a massive following from having appeared in many other famous French films. They play totally diverse characters in Guédiguian’s films, but as an ensemble they are tight through experience which creates rich and profound performances. It also allows, in flashbacks, to use real footage from earlier films lending realism to the storyline. Many of his films deal with true historical events. His previous film, Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad, involves the Armenian genocide, a subject close to the heart of this director with Armenian heritage. His remake of The Army of Crime (2009) tells the true story of Armenians in the French Resistance during WWII.

His latest film, The House By the Sea (see trailer here), takes place just south of Marseille in a seaport village where families have settled in for decades. The Russian writer Chekhov once said, “If you want to speak about the world, speak about your village.” The film focuses on the unspoken discord in a family of three siblings gathering in their village to determine what to do with their aging father and how to deal with the family property. While the aging locals are dealing with a community that has been gentrified, where all the familiar landmarks are vanishing, replaced by rich speculators, and homes are being priced out of range, one older couple plan their dual suicide, while others contemplate their fate in a profit driven corporate world. But what makes this leftist director unique among his peers is his Marxist awareness of the signs of a changing world. The son jokes at one point about someone calling them “middle class,” knowing as communists they’ve always identified with the “working class.”

As the characters confess their deepest emotions before other family members, such as the wife who suppressed her anger at her husband for allowing their 6-year-old daughter to wander into the water and drown so many years ago, the movie turns into a deep melodrama. While this goes on, they begin to notice a gradual buildup of police cars along the waterfront throughout the summer, soon to discover that the police have been scouting for refugees forced out of their war-torn countries and hiding out in the hills. Sympathizing with this human tragedy, they secretly search for the families, many with very young starving children, and eventually harbor one of the families with three children in their home.

Longtime TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling says Guédiguian’s newest film is “one of his best films. So moved and impressed by this film that speaks to what is going on today.” It’s a philosophical study of what the world can be, as the seven main characters discuss many of the world’s issues. Guédiguian and his wife Ariane Ascaride accompanied the film in its North American premiere. Explaining the structure of his film, he stated, “The idea of the ‘universal’ doesn’t exist but only when it is crystallized in a single moment or single place such as the one in the movie. I truly believe you can tell every single story of the world from any place in the world.” He most always chooses Marseille.

Ascaride explained her acting approach developed over decades of playing totally different characters: “I don’t explore anything. What interests me is to be. You have to have the courage to show yourself, be willing to be naked in a way, to be vulnerable—to show your soul. And to do so in a way that serves the character well. Just to be this character.” And in regards to the progressive politics they both share, she added, “Politics to me is just the difference between living for yourself or living for others. So what’s changed is we need to find causes that go beyond ourselves. In the Western world these causes are not that obvious now. And this was embodied by the three migrant children who are mirrors of the three siblings in the film. An appearance of a new universal cause that goes beyond ourselves. The migrant crisis and refugees issue will be central in the next few years. Regardless of what kinds of refugees they are, they directly challenge our views of the sharing of wealth.”





Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.