Karim Aïnouz achieves the perfect balance between people and locale in “Central Airport THF,” a rare observational documentary that recognizes the beauty of spatial forms without forgetting the individuals who inhabit those voids. Struck by the irony that Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, a place of transit amplified by Nazi dreams of grandeur, is now used as a refugee center, the Berlin-based director combines his superb compositional eye with an empathetic glimpse of the lives of a few people living and working in the center. Using a month-by-month structure, and 18-year-old Syrian Ibrahim Al Hussein as his muse, Aïnouz ensures that the men and women who appear on-screen have a humanity to counter the numbing statistics invariably accompanying discussions of refugees. Arty enough for the festival crowd while also topical enough for sales agents, “Central Airport” should collect plenty of stamps in its passport.
The opening boasts a sensitivity to structural forms that could only come from someone with a deep appreciation for architecture and geometrical harmony (Aïnouz was one of the directors involved in the “Cathedrals of Culture” project). Beautifully establishing the expansiveness of the airport, he uses a drone shot accompanied on the soundtrack by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, thrillingly synchronizing the camera’s rise with the ascending phrases of the insistent strings. Throughout the film, he cuts to Berliners using the park along the airport’s periphery, from kids on Segways to joggers skirting the fence, ensuring viewers don’t forget that “normal” life exists just outside the omnipresent barrier.
But the film’s heart is inside, embodied in Ibrahim’s voiceover as he recalls his life before the war in Syria, when he’d wake up to the songs of Lebanese singer Fairuz and the smell of his mother’s freshly brewed coffee. It’s June, and he’s already been at Tempelhof for five months, waiting for his status to change from the uncertain “protected” category to the more secure “refugee.” Alone, connected to his family in Syria by cell phone but struggling with the deadening isolation inside an airport hangar, Ibrahim dreams of the fruit trees he grew up around, a world far away from the tarmac-surrounded industrial space in cold and grey Berlin.
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Aïnouz wisely focuses on just a few people in the center, so apart from overhead shots of the rows upon rows of white cubicle-like living spaces set up in the different hangars that give a vague notion of just how many people reside there (upwards of 3,000), the director avoids the kind of anonymous mass that neuters individuality. The most frequently seen refugee apart from Ibrahim is Qutaiba Nafea, an Iraqi physiotherapist who volunteers at the clinic as a translator and hopes to earn money to pay for German lessons for his wife. Also seen are a few of the people working in the center, men and women trying to accord some dignity to thousands of people in limbo, as well as a security guard patrolling the perimeter and acting as a reminder that the center is a holding pen as well as a temporary haven.
When March rolls around, Ibrahim receives his refugee status and leaves, creating a bit of an emotional hole at the film’s heart in the final 10 minutes or so, although Aïnouz still uses the young man’s voiceover as a way of ensuring a satisfying sense of cohesion. That doesn’t mean he’s making the situation itself satisfying, or pretty; the final words are Ibrahim’s, speaking of the saddest day of his life, when he left Syria. Home remains home, and while the documentary makes certain the audience sees individuals and not statistics, the trauma doesn’t fade away. Rather, it seems as enduring as Tempelhof airport itself.