Small Stature, Powerful Punches – Aki Kaurismäki’s THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

 

 

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The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

There is a term in boxing called “pound-for-pound” whereby a boxers rank is determined by his physical achievement in relation to his size. The best pound-for-pound fighters do the most with the least and while their stature may be small, the power and heart they exhibit during a fight outweigh it. If there is a stylistic equivalent to a pound-for-pound fighter in movies, I can’t think of a more fitting title-holder than Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Since the beginning of his career, his cinema has been defined through a simplicity in style, dialogue, and emotion that is delightful and rich for some, but distant and opaque for others. It features lighting that can best be described as sparse and dialogue that is curt and aloof, most of it to comic effect, but also revealing deep insights into the character’s lives and emotions. I spoke much about Kaurismäki before here, and why I felt his movies not only do the most with the least, but why his idiosyncratic style is difficult to absorb at face value and not as easily digestible as his Western European counterparts, but yet, behind the coy and jokey design his films are draped with, he is a filmmaker with immensely bold and important ideas.

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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

Much like another 2017 film, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless which uses a parent’s divorce and missing child as an allegory for life under Putin, Kaurismäki utilizes a refugee story and a businessman’s redemption to channel politics, economics, and culture within Finland.

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Khaled is a Syrian immigrant, whose first appearance in the film is at the opening series of shot, with him slowly peeking his head out from under a pile of coal and casually walking away, caked in soot. His journey to Finland was anything but clean, and in one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, he recounts the entire journey to a Finnish immigration officer. “I didn’t choose to come here” Khaled simply says at the end. He is looking for his sister who is the only family member left alive after a bomb massacred the rest of them in Aleppo. “ISIS, Kurds, Syrian government, USA, Russia, Hezbollah… it could have been anybody.” Many monster movies in Hollywood fashion the tagline “Whoever wins, we lose.” Khaled, and many other Syrians live that reality every day, and it’s not cool or exciting to watch. This is probably the most a Kaurismäki character has ever talked in one setting, but it indicates the importance Kaurismäki hold for the words of refugees, and for the director to break his style of undescriptive dialogue for this character, speaks volumes about his moral compass as a filmmaker.

While Khaled tries to find his footing with no money nor identification, the other central character in the film, a cold business investor named Wikstrom, who is recently divorced, buys up a restaurant and its staff with a large sum of money he won in high-stakes poker. He is incredibly savvy in the business world, and cutthroat as well. We realize from the beginning, after they arbitrarily come across each other on a deserted road in the first 10 minutes and promptly part ways without a word, that both Khaled and Wikstrom are destined to meet up once again. The dichotomy of these two characters is that between an established, wealthy national citizen and someone who has just arrived and is scraping by. They also represent the old and new visions of the director with Wikstrom’s restaurant venture providing the light-hearted brevity we have come from know and love of Kaurismäki’s cinema, while Khaled is the cipher for a new path of political commentary he is embarking upon.

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Wikstrom knows the lay of the land when it comes strictly to business, but he is not savvy to the political climate of the nation. When his workers ask for a high salary, he retorts they will get “union wages… whatever they are.” He is also easily duped by them in a hilarious sequence where the front-end host sweet-talks Wikstrom into a couple of extra Euros. He then steps out and signals to the other two employees a look which says “yeah, he’s a sucker” and the waitress promptly goes in to pinch a few easy bucks from him as well. Wikstrom’s uptight business attitude belies his vulnerabilities to dealing with people, and contributes to his complexity as a character and sets up for his encounter with Khaled.

That Wikstrom would find Khaled sleeping near the dumpsters outside his restaurant, get into a fist fight with him, and promptly offer him a job may be a naïve idealist dream, but it does make one thing clear, Kaurismäki refuses to brand people in his films as good or bad. In fact, the only characters in the film who end up being one-sidedly evil (because that’s the only factual and realistic way to portray them) are the Neo-Nazis who tussle with Khaled several times throughout the movie. In a comedic film, the presence of these figures feels like a jolt to the system. Kaurismäki’s inspiration here seems to come from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In that film, the Jewish barber is inherently a comedic character, but in one sequence, he is being lynched at a streetlight by Nazi sympathizers. It’s a terrifying scene because it is sandwiched between comedic hijinks. Even the event itself is poised as a “funny bit” with the Nazi’s not being able to tie the rope properly and Chaplin falling down and bonking one of them on the head. Kaurismäki recreates a similar mix of terror and comedy when the Nazis follow Khaled outside near an alley and attempt to pour gasoline on him and light him on fire when a homeless man smashes a beer bottle on one of their heads and sends him for a loop.

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Racism themes are treated in Hollywood with tear-jerking patronization and an ironic silencing of actual minority voices by posing it as a “both sides issue”. They are also hilariously considered brave and moving and are automatic awards hogs, like Martin McDonaugh’s disgustingly bad Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kaurismäkis is a welcome antidote to the trivialization of these important topics, and his ability to create moments of such great power and emotion, and an unmistakable clarity in right vs wrong, from unassuming and often detached characters and situations inherent in his style is what makes The Other Side of Hope a remarkable achievement and the must-see film of 2017.

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O.J. Made in America

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OJ: Made in America positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson. As a black kid from the projects turned football star turned American icon, he was the living, walking, and talking embodiment of the American Dream, and exhibit A for proof that capitalism worked. A man whose figure in the American pop culture diaspora was so magnanimous, it defied definition. As Jay-Z put it, “Not a businessman, but a business… man.” However, all of this was shattered through a court trial that ended up finding him innocent, but fallout that rendered him an outcast of American society. In this, Edelman paints an America comprised of two sides that were always at odds in the fight for O.J. Simpson. A white America who embraced his rise and turned un-apologetically to relish in his fall, and a black America who felt neglected by his apathy towards their social struggle yet embellished in the opportunity to use his trial as a means of social justice. As a documentary, a piece of visual media, it turns its lens in every direction and points it back at us in 2016, facing a similar racially fractured situation which all but intensified post a seminal verdict in the court that is the American presidential election. It points it back at its own storytelling form, the overexposure of an individual, a normalization of his dangerous behavior, a treatment of him as a victim of unwarranted harsh criticism rather than recognizing his actions as inviting and justifying it.

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The social and cultural shifts of American history through time shape and are shaped by its most powerful citizens. Race relations brewed through O.J.’s life, even if he tried his hardest to avoid them. We perceive race as a binary entity. You are either racist or you are not. However, like most ideologies or worldviews, it exists in a blended spectrum that makes it harder for us to judge, and dangerously, harder to detect or realize. Many instances in O.J. Made in America showcase blatant examples of racism. Use of the n-word, beating of black individuals by police, direct violence against blacks by whites. However, there is also deeply rooted systemic racism that the documentary taps into and it is revealed not only in the laws and policies of the nation, but in the everyday lives of people, perhaps unwittingly. As they say, the system isn’t broken, it’s meant to work this way and it ingrained itself in the American psyche to the point of second nature… subconscious reaction to visual signals. Mark Cuban mentioned in an interview several years ago that if he was out at night in the city and saw a black kid in a hoodie he would feel the need to go to the other side of the street(1). We don’t know where such a mental reaction originated from and that’s exactly the issue. Preconceived notions on race are omnipresent in American media as well. In OJ, majority of the violent news footage is consisted of black individuals in urban areas attacking and being “handled” by police officers. These biases exist in everyone and they exist to different degrees. They existed within the rich white circles O.J. Simpson surrounded himself with and then was discarded from once they couldn’t use his stature to their benefit anymore. They existed within Johnny Cochran and his team, who used race-baiting tactics to overcome hard evidence and let a murderer go free. They existed within Simpson himself, who claimed he “never saw race” yet, upon seeing a commotion outside his mansion following his chase down the highway remarked to a white police officer “what are all these n—— doing here?”

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The subject, OJ, of Ezra Edelman’s documentary is amended with a predicate: Made in America. Here lies the power of the story. Where the onus is placed on a culture, a nation, and a history that perpetuated the rise of such an individual, and tore itself apart amidst his demise. The idol worship culture, where the concept of a person being bigger than a person, exists for better or for worse. We elevated Bill Cosby as an all-time comedian. We elevated Tom Cruise as a charismatic screen-stealing superstar. We elevated Donald Trump as a money-savvy outsider who could plausibly lead the most powerful nation in the world for four straight years. Through interviews and news clippings Edelman shows us how our (now social) media-obsessed culture feeds into the mythos of ultimate success and power. We say that America is the place where winners go. You’ll never become as successful and as wealthy and as powerful anywhere else in the world as you can in America. Well, that sword comes with two edges. Capitalism is always coupled with materialism. Fame is always coupled with greed. Power is always coupled with corruption. Only in America could an O.J. Simpson be made. We all made him because we all fed into his myth and his lie. The greatness of O.J. Made in America is in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Something to think about for the next four years.

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