How to make a political film that is depoliticized? How to make a virtuous film that is not self-righteous? How to see the other not as the other but as himself?
In Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, the destinies of two men dovetail: Wikström, a middle-aged Finnish shirt salesman, and Khaled, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who came to Finland as an accidental stowaway. It is in many ways an “issue film” (for which Kaurismäki apologizes in the film's press notes), yet one which successfully maneuvers the many pitfalls of “issue films” by first avoiding self-righteousness, and second, by being in fact about two men, individuals, which grants the film compassion without falling into sentimentality. The danger of sentimentalizing the narrative of immigration in Europe is that it only further compartmentalizes the other as such. To sentimentalize the other (the immigrant) is to place them in a position of reception of European charity, a position while well-meant, is nonetheless rooted in the same ideology of racial/national/secular/progressive superiority that has plagued Europe since the creation of its nations.
Here Kaurismäki’s notorious deadpan humor and lack of maudlin gestures allows him to project a worldview that is more than simply empathetic, but virtuous. In The Other Side of Hope, the difference between the self and the other is never effaced (one cannot imagine a more ur-Finnish director than Kaurismäki), yet ethics remain universally applicable. Wikström’s uprightness, which may have a source in “Finnishness,” applies to all—Wikström offers the jobless, homeless Khaled employment for the same reason he keeps on his Finnish cook whose chef d’oeuvre is a boiled potato and a can of sardines: he has a basic human decency that directs his actions. And it is this decency that allows The Other Side of Hope to transcend politics of race and culture.
This universality through specificity is evident in the Finnish rock songs which pepper the film—slow, pale, melancholic lamentations, expressing a specific Nordic melancholy, just as Khaled’s mournfully Eastern oud captures the longing for home of his fellow refugees in the detention center. The methods are different, the instruments singular, the sounds are culturally specific, but the effect is one of a common understanding and existence.
A very simple idea is manifested through the music, as simple as the pale pastels in the film, and as simple as Wikström’s correctness: that humanism does exist; that humanity emerges best from forms of expression that are most specific, and here the most Finnish. And this expression which attains the universal through the most specific resists against the most dangerous of all claims, that utopian ideal of perfect assimilation, an ideal which take as an assumption the lowest common denominator of the normal, and generates an illusion of static and eternal unchange as the only true form of being. The ridiculousness of which is ironically illustrated by the buffoonish caricatures of Finnish neo-Nazis whose inherited perspective of hate they themselves don't comprehend, as is to humorously illustrated when they call Khaled a “Jew” as they stab him in the belly.
The Other Side of Hope does not so much clamor for an emotional perspective of compassion towards the other as it makes a display of acts compassion as a model. Wikström, as he freely admits himself, has no friends. And we are entirely unaware of whether he has any opinion at all about Muslim immigration. And in fact, it is irrelevant. Khaled is simply treated through Wikström’s (somewhat strange at times) filter of ethical action.
In the face of the other, Kaurismäki suggests that what matters is not so much a political stance, or an outward display of compassion, but rather the compassionate act. Wikström sees someone in need, and he helps. Identification documents, police procedures, court orders all have no ethical significance, so they are ignored without further ado. And it is the discompassion with which Wikström acts which preserves Khaled’s honor, which preserves the alterity of the other and keeps him from becoming little more than a receptive “charity-case” for white European generosity. Without hubbub or hullabaloo, the choice of sacrifice (risking his money, his time, the success of his newly opened restaurant) for Wikström goes without saying, it is a situation which he is bound by his internal ethics to act upon, simply because that is the only choice to be made—ethical considerations win over legal ones, human consideration defeat national ones.
There is no heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality in The Other Side of Hope, no appeals to righteousness, no moral outrage. Simply a show of decency, compassion, rectitude. The capacity of the individual to act in the face of adversity. Simple lines in simple colors: The law is insignificant. The individual matters. The act matters. Compassion matters. Not as a passive feeling, but as an active deed. And an example to be followed.
In this, the film insists on an compassionate act as the solution to reactionary nationalist movements such as are growing on both sides of the Atlantic. What is deplorable about the Trump administration is the manifestation of contempt for compassion, for understanding. By sidelining the issue as the driving dramatic force, The Other Side of Hope leaves aside judgments about political opinion. There is space to be anti-immigration, there is room for the preservation of one’s own culture, as long as it is accompanied by common decency. Exactly the opposite of the current American administration in which consideration is ridiculed as weakness, goodness as unnecessary, rectitude as superfluous.
In many ways this perspective from “this side of hope” and the example of Wikström’s actions, never as valiant as they are evident, is the antidote to the poisonous ambiance emanating from the Trump White House with its blatantly racist cabinet, with its disdain for the suffering, with its fear of the other. The film provides us a potential medicine for this unfortunate presidency in an example of action to be taken, not so much of resistance, as of decency: individualist acts of solidarity, discompassionate acts of compassion.