A young Iraqi refugee attempts to cross the dangerous border between Turkey and Bulgaria in “Europa,” a gripping drama that takes viewers as close as they would ever want to come to the real-life experiences of those willing to risk everything in the quest for safety and security. Using the conventions of a survivalist thriller to tell a gut-wrenchingly realistic tale of determination in the face of almost-unimaginable fear, Iraqi-Italian filmmaker Haider Rashid packs enormous punch into the lean running time. Following its debut in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, “Europa” received limited release in Italy in September and is Iraq’s official submission in the Oscar international feature category.
Rashid uses almost no dialogue. Everything willing audiences need to know is laid out in opening text information stating that migrants attempting to enter Europe are routinely abused and intimidated by law enforcement officials and gangs of nationalist civilians calling themselves “Migrant Hunters.”
Carrying nothing but his passport, Kamal (British Libyan actor Adam Ali, outstanding in a physically and emotionally demanding role) comes face to face with these trigger-happy vigilantes in the dead of night while waiting to cross into Bulgaria. Shortly after the boss of the human trafficking operation (Mohamed Zouaoui) tells an old man in Kamal’s group to “pay $8,000 now or go back,” all hell breaks loose. As some beside him are shot dead, Kamal is tied up and told “go back, no Europe.” In the first of many narrow escapes from what seems to be certain death, Kamal manages to break free and flee into the Bulgarian forest.
From this moment onward, DP Jacopo Caramella trains his camera almost exclusively on Kamal’s face as he attempts to evade detection and reach anywhere resembling civilization. Viewers rarely see much detail of his surroundings or the threats he is facing. Sound design plays a critical and highly effective role, with the distant buzz of helicopters and the more immediate sounds of voices and footsteps creating substantial and sustained suspense. In one of the film’s most tense and technically impressive sequences, Caramella’s camera climbs quickly up a tree alongside Kamal as he watches migrant hunters below shoot and kill someone just like him.
Films such as “Deliverance” and the many thrillers inspired by Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” come to mind when the camera ocassionally leaves Kamal’s face and shows the magnificent green forest he’s trapped in. Like the decadent aristocrat in Connell’s story, those hunting and killing refugees in this beautiful place regard it as more like a sport to be enjoyed than committing murder. When a balaclava is removed from one of the migrant hunters, it reveals the lifeless face of a very young man, possibly even a teenager.
In addition to showing how extreme nationalist groups can respond to outsiders, Rashid calls attention to the fears of ordinary citizens. After staggering onto a road in a bleeding and badly injured state, Kamal is picked up by a female driver (Svetlana Yancheva) with whom he cannot communicate, even in broken English. There are no subtitles provided for the radio show she is listening to, but once words such as “Libya” and “Iraq” are heard, she slams on the brakes and screams at Kamal to get out of her vehicle.
Running a mere 66 minutes excluding credits, “Europa” is a brief and grueling experience that will frustrate some viewers with its claustrophobic visual strategy, ambiguous ending and very deliberate decision to not provide any background detail about Kamal. But for those who tune into Rashid’s wavelength, the film will speak loudly and memorably about the countless victims of a humanitarian crisis that seems to have no end.