Shot almost entirely in a giant metal container, "Stowaways" is an almost unbearably claustrophobic tale about a motley crew of refugees trying to make their way illegally into Canada by hiding out on a container ship. The pic, co-directed and co-written by Quebec's Denis Chouinard and Switzerland's Nicolas Wadimoff, is a gripping, ultimately powerful piece of socially conscious filmmaking. But it is also tremendously depressing and unrelentingly bleak, and the uniformly harsh tone of the drama will make it a tough slog for most auds. It will elicit some interest from arthouse crowds in French Canada and Europe after its fest run and, with some scenes of brutality snipped, will likely be a draw in upscale tube slots.

Shot almost entirely in a giant metal container, “Stowaways” is an almost unbearably claustrophobic tale about a motley crew of refugees trying to make their way illegally into Canada by hiding out on a container ship. The pic, co-directed and co-written by Quebec’s Denis Chouinard and Switzerland’s Nicolas Wadimoff, is a gripping, ultimately powerful piece of socially conscious filmmaking. But it is also tremendously depressing and unrelentingly bleak, and the uniformly harsh tone of the drama will make it a tough slog for most auds. It will elicit some interest from arthouse crowds in French Canada and Europe after its fest run and, with some scenes of brutality snipped, will likely be a draw in upscale tube slots.

Six people meet at a harbor in an unnamed European city (seemingly in Southern France) and are herded into an empty steel container by a smuggler, with harbor security guards in hot pursuit. In their rush to escape the law, Dora (Simona Maicanescu) and her young daughter, Svetlana (Christelle Sabas), lose all the food they had brought for the long trip across the Atlantic. The Russian refugee Roman (Anton Kouznetsov) sparks the first of many confrontations when he unsuccessfully attempts to have Dora and her child banned from the trip due to their lack of provisions.

Once out at sea, the tyrannical Roman begins setting up his own space in the container by putting boxes between him and the rest of the illegal passengers. The first crisis occurs when the ship is forced to make an unexpected stop in Liverpool due to engine difficulties, with the stowaways quickly realizing the delay is going to put extra strain on their food supplies.

The refugess freak out in a big way when a second mechanical breakdown occurs , in the middle of the ocean. Bitter fights break out over the remaining food. In an incredibly brutal scene, Roman, the worst of the bunch, gives Dora some tiny morsels of food in return for allowing him to violently have sex with her.

The other refugees finally attack the Russian, almost killing him. In a last-ditch effort to stave off their hunger, they manage to burst a small hole in the container’s iron door, and the thin teenager Sandu (Ovidiu Balan) is able to slip out and make his way to the kitchen. But he unwittingly leaves a footprint that the ship authorities discover. The captain and crew round up the stowaways and show little mercy. Pic’s ending is notably grim.

Chouinard and Wadimoff, both first-time feature helmers, have succeeded in crafting a moving, always engrossing pic that puts a human face on the frequent news stories about desperate refugees. But the film would have been even more effective if the writer-directors had added more nuance to their portraits of the six characters.

Perfs are all quite good, particularly Kouznetsov as the Russian bad guy and Maicanescu as the despondent Dora. Pic is shot almost entirely in extremely tight quarters by Sylvain Brault, creating a near-suffocating sense of claustrophobia, and American avant-garde rock musician Bill Laswell’s driving world-beat soundtrack is a great asset.

Stowaways

(CANADIAN-SWISS)

Production

A Motion Intl. release (in Canada) of a Dschoint Ventschr/Les Prods. Du Regard/Films de la Cassine/Morgane Films production, with the participation of L'Office Federal de la Culture de Suisse, Television Suisse-Romande, Fonds Culturel de Suissimage, Departement Municipal des Affaires Culturelles de la Ville de Geneve, Departement de l'Instruction Publique de la Republique et du Canton de Geneve, Centre du Cinema et de l'Audiovisuel de la Communaute Francaise de Belgique, Telefilm Canada, Sodec, Quebec government and the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres of Quebec. (International sales: Motion Intl., Montreal.) Produced by Werner Schweizer, Esther Van Messel, Jean-Roch Marcotte, Robert Nador, Eve Vercel, Chantal Bernheim, Greta Van Bempt. Directed, written by Denis Chouinard, Nicolas Wadimoff.

Crew

Camera (color), Sylvain Brault; editor, Christian Marcotte; music, Bill Laswell; art direction, Ivan Niclass; costumes, Cidalia Da Costa; sound, Viateur Paiement. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 23, 1997. (Also in Locarno Film Festival.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Sandu ..... Ovidiu Balan Walid ..... Moussa Maaskri Dora ..... Simona Maicanescu Roman ..... Anton Kouznetsov Halima ..... Hanane Rahman Svetlana ..... Christelle Sabas
With: Mauro Bellucci, Miroslaw Baka, Francois Papineau, Walter Verhoeven, Patrick Verschueren, Jean-Luc Orofino, France Vermeeren.
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