It’s amazing what can be done with just a table and a few chairs. “The Other Side of Hope” takes that simple setup and crafts a lovingly symbolic morality tale, that manifests itself by exploring the very real impact a crisis can have on any one individual person. There is a very perfect balance of joy and tragedy that develops in detail throughout this film, so much so that if you didn’t crack a smile at the sight of salted herring topped with a pound of wasabi sauce I know what I’m serving if you ever come to my home for dinner.
The word ‘hope’ is a noun and a verb (I know because I looked it up) but it’s basic meaning in both cases is still the “expectation of fulfillment”. As I said in my preview, “The Other Side of Hope” is rather an odd title and I honestly didn’t think too much about it exactly what it meant before going into the theatre, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t. If I had I think I would have realized that it does have a kind of sad association if the unfufillment of desire is on the other side of hope; but you could very well think the other side is the actual fulfillment of that expectation. Going into this film without truly knowing which of those to expect allowed it to surprise me quite a few times along the way.
There are two ways to look at TOSOH – it can be this weird fish-out-of-water story about two men who basically do whatever it takes to pursue their dreams, or it can be this weird tragic tale of two men who basically find out the pursuit of their dreams didn’t turn out how they hoped. However, the reality is that, just like in real life, those two things can be so intertwined that you can’t really separate them from each other. That develops into one of the major themes of “The Other Side of Hope”, that sometimes we really have no control over having to play the hand we are dealt. [TOHOS takes this symbolism literally by even having Wikström win his fortune in a high stakes poker game.]. There is an inherent tragedy in that statement that we might not be in as much control of our destiny as we would like to think. What TOHOS shows is that even then we can still make decisions to try and make the best out of a situation no matter what. This pops out throughout the film – Khaled ends up in Finland because he was just trying to hide out on a boat; Wikström tries to make the best out of what looks like the worst restaurant in Northern Europe, Masdaq ends up in 5 different immigration centres with nothing more than the clothes on his back, even the singers in the bars and train platforms sing songs of working stony land or playing music until they die. Yet each one of them is undeniably living with at least a little bit of hope that keeps them going day after day. That if they just hang on a little longer life will get better for them. They have a purpose that defines them.
That also is a theme that is persistently carried throughout this movie. What is it exactly that defines a person? Their homeland? Their job? Their actions? Khaled, especially, is the character most obviously defined by his purpose as well as the one who really has the least control over the events surrounding him, yet he still is mostly able to choose his actions and reactions to those situations. He willingly asks for asylum then decides to flee instead of being sent back to Aleppo. He sleeps next to a dumpster and calls it his bedroom. He vacuums the restaurant with enthusiastic abandon and accepts that he has to hide in the women’s washroom like a dog [invoking another moment of not-so-subtle symbolism]. What is his identity?
Khaled even directly addresses this in his immigration interview, when he says directly that he no longer truly cares about what happens to him, he just wants to find his sister and ensure she has a safe future. This also comes back in a wonderful way when (spoiler alert!) his sister makes it into Finland, and he offers her the opportunity to get fake citizenship papers; but to her, giving up her true identity and not being able to live as herself is too much to give up.
I love the distinct artistic choices that director Aki Kaurismaki makes in this film. It isn’t afraid to have long stretches with no dialogue, letting long stretches of silence just play out, whether its Khaled walking the streets of Helsinki alone, watching the news of bombing in Syria, or waiting endlessly on a chair at immigration while other refugees go ahead of him. As a viewer it really gives you the experience of putting yourself in the character’s place, along with all the uncertainty and uncomfortableness that accompanies such a situation. All that kept going through my mind while watching was how I had planned to just go swimming and then relax in the hot tub after the movie and how easily I was taking that for granted that I had even had that much freedom to do so. But “The Other Side of Hope” made me say to myself, could I love without this? Without a home, without a family? Everything I own, my entire identity reduced to just what I can carry in a duffel bag?
And those are pretty powerful and provocative thoughts for ANY movie to generate, in again, what very much amounts to a few people talking around a table for much of the screen time. But “The Other Side of Hope” brilliantly makes you feel those feelings by focusing on each of those individuals involved, and how they are each just trying to survive day by day. Whether it be a refugee in a new country, a restaurant trainee who hasn’t been paid for three months, a busker in a train station, or a businesswoman who wants to move to Mexico so she can dance the “Hula-Hula”, all they want is just a little bit of hope. All they need is a little bit of help from someone else. And just like the long-haul truck driver who says he wouldn’t take money for smuggling Khaled’s sister into Finland, all it takes is for someone to have enough courage to stand up and help. Because that’s what you are supposed to do when you see someone in trouble – you help them.