Aki Kaurismäki has not, until the past few years, seemed a terribly political man either (although he did boycott the 2003 Academy Awards as a protest against the war in Iraq). For most of his three-and-a-half-decade career as a filmmaker, he’s been content to turn his camera on the lives of taciturn working-class characters with modest pleasures and low expectations, wherever he finds them—usually in his native Finland, but sometimes in France or England or America or Estonia. Nobody in his pictures ever appears to feel quite at home anywhere; every Kaurismäki film, no matter where it’s set, has the what-the-hell restlessness of a road movie.
But everywhere, even in the direst circumstances, he and his comically stoic characters somehow manage to locate sources of comfort, of ordinary ease. Cheap cafés and bars, boxy old portable radios, record players, accordions, music of all kinds (especially country blues and rock and roll), cigarettes, booze, and dogs—these are the elements of the Kaurismäki Cinematic Universe, the things his characters savor, usually in silence. (In most of his films, people smoke a lot more than they talk.) All of these creature comforts are present in The Other Side of Hope, too. But Khaled, because he is no longer just himself, can’t find any solace in them, as Kaurismäki’s people are supposed to do. The wrongness of that state of affairs is pretty clearly what has turned this generally apolitical artist into a (dry, tight-lipped) firebrand. For Kaurismäki, the institutional denial of small pleasures is a call to arms.
His passion about the plight of today’s refugees is unmistakable, though American audiences, who are largely unfamiliar with his work, might be a little puzzled by the simplicity and apparent serenity of his cinematic manner. Kaurismäki doesn’t go in for big dramatic moments. And although immigration is a hot topic these days, in both Europe and the United States, and many moviegoers are rightly suspicious of filmmakers who feel the need to weigh in on current political issues, there isn’t a whiff of Oscar-seeking opportunism in this picture. Kaurismäki has been outraged about the situation of refugees and immigrants for a long time. In a 2007 interview with the film scholar Andrew Nestingen, he raised the issue practically out of the blue, and delivered this pithy rant:
The real disgrace here is Finland’s refugee policy, which is shameful. We refuse refugee status on the flimsiest of grounds and send people back to secure places like Darfur, Iraq, and Somalia. “It’s perfectly safe, go ahead.” Our policy is a stain among the Nordic nations. Shameful.
His first film on the issue, Le Havre, came out four years later. In that lovely movie, the beleaguered immigrant is a young teenage boy from Gabon named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who arrives at the French port of Le Havre in a shipping container, packed in with about a dozen other desperate pilgrims. He’s hoping to make his way to his mother, in London. On the run, he has the good fortune to meet a peculiarly jaunty shoe-shine man named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), who’s something of a wanderer himself. He was once, he tells the boy, a bohemian in Paris, before washing up in Le Havre and settling down. (Those who have seen Kaurismäki’s gloriously funny 1992 comedy, La Vie de Bohème, will recognize Marcel as the spectacularly unsuccessful writer being evicted from his apartment in the movie’s opening scenes.) He takes Idrissa in and, with the help of friends and neighbors who might have been at home in a good populist French film of the 1930s, hides him from the authorities.