An intimate account of a Kurdish family seeking asylum in Switzerland, “Escape to Paradise” assembles a cast composed mainly of political refugees to add an authentic human dimension to the drama. While it’s told in simplistic, at times dramatically naive terms that will soften its impact with sophisticated festival and arthouse audiences, writer-director Nino Jacusso’s film deftly balances pathos with amusing observations, making this affecting story of exile ideal for television and specialized video release. Interest should be heightened by the added attention being paid to political refugee issues as a result of current events.
Scripting with a team of collaborators that includes key cast members, Jacusso makes this fact-based account of flight from an oppressive regime to a safe harbor — one that extends only the most conditional welcome mat — into an easily accessible, compelling human rights story. Story’s most striking revelation is that even those refugees who escaped persecution, imprisonment and torture must struggle to convince authorities of their right to asylum.
Focus here is the family of Sehmuz (Duzgun Ayhan, an Anatolian refugee who won the best actor award in San Sebastian for his understated but intense performance). Fleeing with his wife Delal (Fidan Firat) and their three children from Turkey to Switzerland, Sehmuz prepares for the interview with Swiss authorities that will determine the family’s eligibility for political asylum.
Given temporary housing in a halfway facility for refugees, Sehmuz’s confidence over the interview is undermined by Aziz (Nurettin Yildiz), a family friend. Aziz reminds him that nine out of 10 applicants are sent back, their stories deemed implausible even though they have legitimately fled harsh oppression. Following Aziz’s example, Sehmuz sells family heirlooms to pay a Swiss “storyseller” (Walo Luond) for a fabricated personal history complete with documentation guaranteed to sway immigration authorities. But Delal gets word that Aziz’s request for asylum has been denied, prompting her to convince Sehmuz to gamble on the truth.
Jacusso’s storytelling is exceedingly straightforward. But the writer-director shows a light touch in his depiction of family bonds and of the interaction between people from vastly different cultural backgrounds thrust into similar situations by their shared plight. Exchanges between refugees from Kurdistan, Africa, Cuba and Albania, invariably with no common language, are shaded with gentle humor.
Also well observed is the impersonal nature of the immigration process, the routine procedure of documents, fingerprints, photographs, vaccination and questioning via interpreters adding to the bewilderment of families arriving in an unfamiliar country.
Given the director’s refusal to overdramatize events, instead going for sober realism and sincerity, the choice of widescreen — the slightly grainy visuals have the look of a Super-16 blowup — seems out of synch with the otherwise modest project. While some of the peripheral cast are a little self-conscious, key roles are played convincingly.