The Other Side of Hope – A reason not to visit Finland?

When this film came out, the Finnish tourist industry must have been in despair. For the picture it paints of this cold land to the north is hardly an inviting one. Telling the story of Khaled, a Syrian mechanic fleeing the civil war, The Other Side of Hope is a tragicomedy that, if nothing else, will make anyone who watches it deeply grateful that they don’t live in Finland.

Whether or not that is to the film’s detriment probably comes down to personal choice. Few if any countries are going to come out of a story about a refugee seeking asylum looking good. Somehow though Finland comes out looking a lot worse than most other countries would in such circumstances. From the old fashioned car that Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) drives to the use of typewriters by the police, Finland looks like a country that time forgot, as if Karelia had been washed away on the tides of history. Admittedly that may be part of director Aki Kaurismäki’s approach; something that goes hand in hand with the way he still shoots using film rather than a modern digital approach.

When not a vehicle for propaganda, this film is full of humour and warmth…

Still it looks, and feels odd, alien even. Ultimately to the point where it rankles with how this film is perceived. While the overall narrative is a good one, if a little confusing in places, there are elements that just seem completely out of place, and not because of sloppy script writing either. Rather they seem deliberately placed there, perhaps in an attempt to jar the collective conscience of the audience. Not that it works; instead you just find yourself reinforcing your disbelief. The scene where Khaled is before the asylum board; the reasoning behind their decision is so jarringly out of place with the reality in Syria that it makes the board members into unfeeling robots who are powerless in the system.

Such a lack of depth in the background characters makes them into mere tools for propaganda. The same goes for Khaled’s acerbic talk of ‘unbelievers’. It takes an otherwise intelligent character, who basks in his audience’s empathy, and renders him into a monochrome parody.

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These do tarnish a film that otherwise has all the makings of a cult classic  which is a shame, but don’t let that put you off seeing it. When not a vehicle for propaganda, this film is full of humour and warmth, from Wikstrom’s pummeling of card sharks in a closed doors casino to Khaled’s dog’s ‘conversion’ to Islam (even this comic moment is marred by his later profession of having abandoned all religion). Wikstrom himself is a brilliant creation; a man whose humanity shines through at every moment even if we are never allowed to fully pierce the veil when it comes to all his underworld connections. Kuosmanen plays him straight, allowing the character to shine through on his own merits. Sherwan Haji too is great as Khaled, presenting the character as by turns stoic and naïve; deftly weaving a mosaic of characterisation throughout the film that helps to bring home his plight, as another promised land turns out to be anything but.

By Gareth Wood

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