Novice helmer Kaveh Bakhtiari’s cousin Mohsen was an illegal immigrant from Iran trapped in limbo in Athens. Inspired by his cousin’s plight and moved by others in similar situations, Bakhtiari shot “Stop-Over,” an intimate portrait of men (and one woman) who had hoped to make Greece a transit point en route to other European locales, but whose reliance on smugglers or faked papers makes leaving difficult and staying almost impossible. Though the docu needs trimming and the focused view ignores larger issues, “Stop-Over” reps a respectable entry on the topic, and could see traction at fests and with Euro satcasters.

Bakhtiari, an Iranian-born Swiss citizen, moved in with the clandestine group at a moment of great hopelessness. Six men from Iran and one woman from Armenia were living in a below-street-level apartment rented by Amir, a guy who had similarly fled Iran three years earlier; he’s also the only one of the group with a temporary residency permit. Fearful of being picked up by the police (whose anti-immigrant bias is heavily implied), the group make limited excursions outside but mostly nervously bide their time waiting for transit possibilities that rarely appear.

The frustrations of communal living are ever-present, as tripwire tensions threaten to derail their uneasy camaraderie; simple horsing around can shift instantly to fury. (The helmer’s privileged status as a Swiss citizen must also have occasionally inflamed the others.) At the docu’s start, a title states that Mohsen will be dead before the end; viewers will likely debate whether this foreknowledge is helpful or creates extra, perhaps unnecessary pathos.

All Amir’s tenants came to Athens via Turkey, often brought by smugglers who reneged on commitments to take them further. Bakhtiari doesn’t go into their histories — Amir makes clear that no one asks about the past — yet each one clearly has his or her own story to tell, whether it’s the 16-year-old whose mother made it to Norway or the cocky guy who cries while Skyping his parents. The departure of one member of this small community galvanizes the others, who find ways to keep going, whether to Europe or, defeated, back to Iran.

While obliquely painting a damning picture of Greece’s refugee policy, the docu doesn’t delve into official immigration policy; nor does it engage with Greek society’s rightward shift, or the seemingly ineffectual role of the United Nations’ refugee division, hinted at when two refugees stage a hunger strike outside their headquarters. The strengths of “Stop-Over” lie in the personal and immediate, capturing the insecurity of people desperate to make a new, safer life for themselves, yet hampered by a system designed to be impenetrable.

Extra-shaky camerawork at the start does not bode well, but fortunately the helmer (also lenser, with assistance from Marie-Eve Hildbrand) uses the device with less frequency in subsequent scenes. A tighter edit would paint a more incisive group portrait.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Stop-Over’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), May 19, 2013. Running time: 104 MIN. Original title: "L'escale"

  • Production: (Documentary – Switzerland-France) An Epicentre Films (in France) release of a Louise Prods. presentation of a Louise Prods., Kaleo Films, Radio Television Suisse, SSR-SRG Idee Suisse production. (International sales: Doc & Film Intl., Paris.) Produced by Elisabeth Garbar, Heinz Dill, Olivier Charvet, Sophie Germain.
  • Crew: Directed by Kaveh Bakhtiari. Camera (color, HD), Bakhtiari; editors, Bakhtiari, Charlotte Tourres, Sou Abadi; music, Luc Rambo; sound, Bakhtiari, Etienne Curchod.
  • With: (Farsi, English dialogue)