Berlin Diary 8: A focus on the refugee crisis. Searching for intimacy. Gael García Bernal’s heist-and-aftermath drama.

Posted on February 23, 2018


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Two years ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s refugee documentary, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), won the Golden Bear. This year, Swiss director Markus Imhoof premiered his refugee documentary, Eldorado, in the Competition section. In terms of the bigger picture, I must say I preferred Fire at Sea, but there’s a touching sentimentality in Imhoof’s film that gets to you, stays with you — largely because the director places events from his own life in relation to the situation today. During WWII, Imhoof’s family took in a young Italian refugee,  named Giovanna. In the present day, observed by a jittery camera, an Italian naval ship off the Libyan coast takes on board 1800 boat people. The film flips back and forth between the two narratives, not just comparing but also contrasting them.

The similarities between the two situations aren’t hammered home, and neither are the differences. Giovanna arrives by train and is instantly accepted by Imhoof’s family. His mother buys black-market butter to fatten up the scrawny girl, and Markus and Giovanna become friends. “You are the reason I am making this journey,” Imhoof says at the beginning of the film, “to see what I really don’t want to see.” The last scene tells us what he means and reinforces how close they became, but even earlier, the warmth spills over. Imhoof shares letters and crayon drawings from their childhood, and he narrates how, after Giovanna was sent back to her home in Italy, his father went and got her back (albeit with the assurance that she wouldn’t stay forever). Imhoof recalls the reunion: “Our hug nearly paralysed me. I never thought of you with breasts.”

The situation today couldn’t be more different, and we keep recalling Giovanna’s story every time we cut to that of the Africans. If Giovanna came with scabies, the Africans are afflicted with diarrhea and malaria. But where Imhoof’s mother nursed Giovanna back to health, all the Africans get is a spot in a refugee camp and this matter-of-fact reassurance: “We will not promise you paradise but every day will be better.” All Giovanna asks for, after she returns home, is her toothbrush that she left in Imhoof’s home. An angry African, who’s been denied asylum, asks for a lawyer. Imhoof says his relatives came from Odessa, Japan, the Caribbean. In the present day, an African family, on a train in Switzerland, is asked to disembark and return to Italy. They are forced to find illegal means to survive — say, in agro businesses that exploit them after pocketing EU subsidies.  

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign