Besides grabbing headlines, Europe’s migrant crisis was depicted in several international feature films in 2016 that tackled the hot button topic from disparate angles.
In Germany, where the influx of more than a million migrants caused deep societal riffs and posed a major challenge to the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, feel-good comedy “Welcome to the Hartmanns’,” about a wealthy Munich family which takes in a Nigerian refugee to therapeutic effect, became the No. 1 homegrown hit. The winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for best film was Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” shot on and around the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which has become a symbol of the migrant crisis. Lampedusa, near the North African coast, is also where Dutch director Guido Hendrikx filmed “Stranger in Paradise,” which opened the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. IDFA also launched Bulgarian director Tonislav Hristov’s “The Good Postman,” a potent portrayal of a Bulgarian village split by opposite responses to Syrian refugees. Afghanistan-born director Navid Mahmoudi’s “Parting” is instead about a young Afghan couple that sets out for Europe, oblivious to the fact that the E.U. repatriated thousands of Afghan migrants in 2016.
“Welcome to the Hartmanns’” — A Nigerian young man named Diallo, who has lost his family to Islamic terror, is taken in by the well-to-do Hartmanns in suburbia outside Munich where he rapidly becomes the family counselor. He helps the mother Angelika (played by Senta Berger — one of Germany’s biggest stars) overcome her alcohol problem; makes the Botox-using father come to terms with aging; sets up the single daughter with his jogging partner; and so on. Despite all his positivity, Diallo still prompts clashes between pro and anti-migrant demonstrators outside the Hartmanns’ home. Munich is among German cities struck by migrant violence and rape incidents. Without pushing the envelope, the film, directed by Simon Verhoeven, cuts to the core of different attitudes, comprising willingness to help and mistrust, prompted by the migrant influx in Germany. Released by Warner Bros. in November, the laffer clearly struck cords in different camps, scoring a whopping more than $23 million, landing the No. 8 spot in the country’s 2016 box office chart and becoming the top German movie of the year.
“Fire at Sea” — Italian director Rosi’s award-winning, non-conventional documentary examines Europe’s migrant situation through the eyes of the residents of Lampedusa, in particular a 12-year-old boy named Samuele, who is the son of a fisherman, and Pietro Bartolo, the only medical doctor on the island. “Rosi doesn’t lecture us with context, but attempts to provide it in a visual, largely unspoken way, letting the horror (for what else can you call the images of so many corpses left below the deck of an intercepted ship?) accumulate little by little,” wrote Variety chief critic Peter Debruge in his review. In an interview with Variety Rosi pointed out that “unlike news reports,” his film is “about human beings.” “I hope it will raise more awareness in public opinion and especially make politicians more aware,” he said. “But,” he added “it’s not a political movie.” “It’s an opportunity to testify an ongoing tragedy that will grow exponentially. An attempt to anticipate something which is inevitable. These people will [continue to] arrive and there are no borders, barriers, barbed wire that can stop this desperation.” Meryl Streep, who served as Berlin jury president, is an ardent fan of this film. She hosted a special screening of “Fire” in New York in November.
“Stranger in Paradise” — Dutch director Hendrikx takes a different approach to depicting Lampedusa in this less poetic three-act piece, which uses an unusual narrative device. An actor sits three groups of migrants, who have recently washed up on the Sicilian island, in a classroom and tells them some tough things about their predicament — such as the fact that 55% of African migrants who risk their lives to get to Europe never find employment. The migrants know they are part of a performance, though they have not done any rehearsals, so their reactions are real. Considered a sort of companion piece to “Fire at Sea,” “Stranger” addresses the “what’s next” phase of a migrant’s journey to Europe.
“The Good Postman” — The titular character in this docu is a progressive postman named Ivan who decides to run for mayor in the tiny crumbling Bulgarian village of Great Dervent (population 40, or so) near the Turkish border. He proposes they allow Syrian refugees to settle in the village’s many vacant homes, which most former local inhabitants have migrated away from. The postman is not just seeking to help the refugees out, he also wants to repopulate the place. But his plan prompts a new young mayoral candidate with a different view to join the race. Variety critic Guy Lodge called it “A sad, searing and profoundly empathetic study of electoral process in a minute Bulgarian village split by opposing responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.” “Hristov’s richly lensed fifth feature is keenly and compassionately observed at a magnified grassroots level — but also functions as a disturbing microcosm of tensions simmering across its subjects’ country, and indeed continent,” Lodge noted.
“Parting” — A young Afghan couple makes frantic preparations to migrate illegally to Europe in this feature film debut of Afghanistan-born Mahmoudi, which world-premiered in Busan. The couple is in Tehran, where Nabi has just arrived after paying some smugglers to get him across the border, while his girlfriend Fereshteh arrived in Iran four years earlier with her family. Almost the entire movie is about the reunited lovebirds going around Tehran trying to find the money and negotiating with traffickers for their transcontinental journey. After bowing at the Busan International Film Festival, “Parting” was Afghanistan’s submission for foreign-language Oscar consideration.