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New York and the World: On the 55th New York Film Festival

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)


2 Train, uptown. The subway whizzes through the city’s subterranean arteries. I’ve ascended from the dark underground to another bright and noisy Manhattan day. Taxis race around Columbus Circle’s dizzying roundabout, and I quicken my walk to its New York pace and trot the remaining blocks up to Lincoln Center, home of the New York Film Festival. En route, I’m struck by a peculiar sight: a large plaza at the corner of West 61st Street is fenced off and deserted. The nondescript skyscraper that stands at the plaza’s center looks closed. My reflection wavers in the building’s metallic glass sheathing, so typical of corporate architectural abominations like this one, and I spot an identifying plaque: TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL & TOWER. I stop, sigh heavily, and then pick up speed again, running away from what I’ve just seen. The remaining four blocks rush by, and I reach Lincoln Center in a New York minute.

My architectural encounter—of the uncanny proximity of Lincoln Center to the “Trump International Hotel & Tower” (which is indeed not “Trump Tower” but the hotel offshoot of the original eyesore across town)—prompted a stream of questions: What is the relation between the culture industry and political landscapes, both national and global? How does the meaning of a film change given the political context of where it is viewed? And how can film intervene today? In the midst of a regime that (among other things) consistently scapegoats diversity for ugly nationalistic ends, puts freedom of expression in positions of grave insecurity, and actively works to defund the arts and humanities, the New York Film Festival’s competition films—two films in particular—posed critical questions that complicate today’s relation between New York and the world.

Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope follows the journey of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Europe. The film opens with the arrival of a boat to Helsinki, upon which Khaled has hidden. “When I arrived home, it lay in ruins,” Khaled tells a Finnish immigration officer of his native Aleppo. Yet despite the atrocities he recounts of his refugee experience, Khaled is denied asylum. Before his impending repatriation to war-torn Syria, Khaled escapes, finding ways to exist under the threshold of visibility in Helsinki. The Finnish director intertwines Khaled’s story with that of Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a man in the midst of a midlife crisis. Looking for a new beginning, Wikström opens a restaurant, hires Khaled, and provides him shelter and the possible means to a new life in Finland.

Despite the fictional narrative of The Other Side of Hope, the film approximates documentary value through its sharp portrayal of a refugee’s story similar to those that proliferate in the contemporary world. In a particularly resonant moment, a group of refugees sit around a television, which broadcasts actual footage of Aleppo’s destruction. This non-diegetic news insert highlights the claim to an external social reality, which, paradoxically, is also heightened through the film’s distinctive stylization. The Other Side of Hope draws an implicit reference to Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, both of which deploy a specific deadpan humor to dramatize unlikely relationships across borders of age and race (between elder Europeans and younger migrants). Following Fassbinder, Kaurismäki’s refined use of satire and juxtaposition serves to expose the social hypocrisies and blatant racism against migrants that both directors candidly depict and critique of their respective milieu.

Nonetheless, the subversive power of Kaurismäki’s irony felt completely atrophied upon the presentation of The Other Side of Hope in New York. America has let in a pitifully low number of Syrian refugees: the so-called refugee crisis was primarily viewed as a televised spectacle and fails to affect daily life at the national level as it does in various Middle Eastern and European countries. This has been reflected governmentally through its positioning as a problem of “theirs” and not one of our own—a laden contradiction in a country whose population is predominantly of immigrant origin. Under the new administration, the resettlement of Syrian refugees has been indefinitely suspended and multiple attempts have been made to pass the egregious “Muslim Ban.”

In the aftermath of these recent events and their politicized reactions, viewing The Other Side of Hope in New York affected how the film’s meaning was interpreted and received. Kaurismäki’s idiosyncratic humor lost its irony and pathos and seemed to be taken as literal—as grotesquely evinced by the roaring laughter that echoed throughout the cavernous Alice Tully Hall during its screening. As its title suggests, the film upholds the necessity for something beyond hope, towards hope’s “other side”—perhaps for practices of unquestioned hospitality in the most desolate of times, as Wikström and Khaled’s relationship allegorizes. Nonetheless, this fell completely flat in the cacophonous abyss of an audience whose nation’s everyday realities and political agendas actively dissociate from the situation that the film presents as an urgent concern of the contemporary world. In concert with its American political unfolding, Kaurismäki’s deadpan depiction of the “refugee crisis,” of both its brutality and its life-affirming moments of humor, was once again delimited to realm of spectacle.

120 battements par minute (Robin Campillo, 2017)

If The Other Side of Hope evinced the borders that separate New York from the world, Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute / 120 battements par minute) articulated a way in which such borders can be traversed. Set in Paris, the film centers on the exhilarating energy of ACT UP Paris at the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 90s. An activist group for direct action surrounding the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, ACT UP Paris was created in 1989, modeled off of its original branch founded in New York two years earlier. A grassroots network of local chapters throughout the world, ACT UP organized jolting interventions that simultaneously aimed at material solutions, transparent knowledge, and the outpouring of rage against the mass deaths occurring from AIDS amidst the duplicitous silence of politicians and the medical industry. Campillo himself joined ACT UP Paris in 1992, and the film’s juxtaposing scenes of the group’s energetic meetings, fierce protests, and sensual nights spent clubbing compound the emancipatory power of living politics in the first person.

Amidst a compelling portrayal of the collective mobilization of desires and losses that structure ACT UP Paris’ explosive protests, a central love story emerges between the film’s enchanting protagonists, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). This romance structures the narrative action of the film, which Campillo charts from Nathan and Sean’s first encounter at an ACT UP meeting to Sean’s ultimate death from AIDS. Their stirring desire and the rapid deterioration of Sean’s health draw attention to the personal intimacy and biopolitical emergency that brought forth the impassioned emotional labor of worldwide activism during the AIDS crisis. Yet, Campillo’s framing of the relationship’s love and loss in the collective context of ACT UP as a group project testifies to the courageous communities of education, care, celebration, and mourning that emerged in the period’s desperate and hopeless times.

In one particularly moving scene immediately following Sean’s death, the group members gather at Nathan and Sean’s apartment, where they together form an impromptu ritual of grief. This ephemeral moment of being with one another underscores the film’s emphasis on the political dimension of collective physical presence both in moments of ecstatic joy and in times of painful loss—and particularly in the confrontation with mortality that the AIDS crisis tragically necessitated. In the film’s final scene, of a “die-in” protest in the streets of Paris, ACT UP members lie on the ground, their bodies occupying the entire panoramic frame. Campillo’s depiction of a collective politics rooted in bodies both erotic charged and bleakly diseased is ciphered into this final shot. The bodies of BPM not only overtake the filmic foreground but also function as the metaphoric battleground from which political struggles are collectively enacted.

BPM was enthusiastically received at the New York Film Festival, most notably as its depiction of Paris in the AIDS crisis drew lines of connection to the past and future of New York. The traumas and memories of the AIDS crisis are intimately inscribed in the cultural history of New York, one of the main cities of its apotheosis in America as well as the city of ACT UP’s founding. Campillo’s Parisian context presents the AIDS crisis as an international (and still-ongoing) event, and its screening in New York also functioned to affirm a history that is still raw to many throughout the city. The audience was markedly intergenerational, between those who lived through the AIDS crisis and those born afterwards. The screening took on a pedagogical resonance by representing a history that both generations experienced together as a community and through which both could claim a collective sense of belonging. Moreover, Campillo’s candid depiction of the fervent debate, disagreement, and exchange of opinions at the heart of ACT UP meetings provides an imperative image of dialogue and even antagonism as productive modes of democracy in action. The historical context of the film resounded poignantly in today’s political landscape, with left-wing melancholia on the one hand and right-wing attacks of security of sexual freedom on the other. The passionate energy ciphered into the activist project that BPM portrays thus serves as a model of what remains possible in a moment saturated with political dismay.

Does film function as a means of crossing borders—across geographical, historical, and political divisions? Or does it merely serve to instantiate them and thus lay bare the limits of empathy? Among the diverse set of films screened in competition at the New York Film Festival, The Other Side of Hope and BPM most evocatively showed both sides of the spectrum. The two films instructively resonated with the state of American politics that so distinctively marks the experiences and consciousness of a New York audience. While The Other Side of Hope accentuated the exclusionary exceptionalism of American political agendas regarding migration and refugees, BPM conjured a specter of New York’s cultural memory in relation to the enduring international impact of AIDS. In the contemporary moment of unnerving political extremes, the context-specific responses that film and film festivals viscerally engender become responsibilities towards rethinking our own relations to the ever-shifting world.