Director – Haider Rashid – 2021 – Iraq, Italy, Kuwait – Cert. 12a – 75 m
A young Iraqi migrant is hunted by mercenaries after he crosses the Turkish/Bulgarian border – out in cinemas and on demand on Friday, March 18th
A number of movies hang over this bold adventure thriller about Kamal (Adam Ali), a young Iraqi migrant who after crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria finds himself hunted by paramilitaries with guns and balaclavas. One is the gothic classic The Most Dangerous Game / The Hounds Of Zaroff (Irving Pichel, Ernest B.Schoedsack, 1932) in which the passengers of a luxury liner shipwrecked on an island find themselves in a deadly relationship with the big game hunter who lives there. The others are much more recent. Utøya July 22 (Erik Poppe, 2018) is a one take recreation of the Utøya teen camp Summer massacre in which kids attempted to survive a rampaging gunman while Son Of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) follows a Jewish worker-prisoner around a Nazi death camp.
The connection with The Most Dangerous Game may actually be coincidental rather than deliberate, since what inspired Rashid was stories of real life migrants’ experiences. The locations are a Bulgarian woods not a constructed Hollywood jungle set, yet it fits neatly into that lineage. And while it doesn’t attempt to be a one-take film like Utøya July 22, there’s a similar feel as Kamal runs through trees or at one point climbs one to avoid gunmen: this is all about surviving assailants in a rural landscape.
Many of the long takes specifically recall Son Of Saul with the camera following its character’s head in focus while the background is out of focus: in both films, the fact that we can’t quite see what’s out there adds to our grounding in the experience. Prior to this production, director Rashid has also dabbled in the world of virtual reality, which appears to have fed into the piece’s immersive aspect.
Despite its short length, the film drags in places and has an ambiguous ending that, for this writer, didn’t quite work. Those scenes that do work, however, are highly effective and enough to justify viewing. A very simple scene early on – almost a prologue – shows a group of migrants being asked to hand over money to their clearly ruthless trafficker (Mohamed Zouaoui) concerned about little beyond immediate financial profit. Crossing what is presumably a gap in the border, our young man finds himself in a horrifying blood sports killing field where he and others like him are the target. The hunters have dogs.
The woods, bathed in sunlight during the day and replete with joyous birdsong, are like a paradise into which a terrible evil may erupt at any moment – and frequently does. At one point, Kamal finds himself in a situation where where the only way he’ll survive is to take on one of his hunters in hand to hand combat utilising the element of surprise. When Kamal eventually finds a road and flags down a lady driver (a compelling Svetlana Yancheva) to get a lift to a hospital, the sequence brilliantly balances all his insecurities as a hunted migrant against those of a woman driver with a male stranger as passenger, with a current affairs programme on Bulgarian radio making her more and more agitated at the young man’s presence the longer he stays in the car.
Despite the massive performance demands on him, Adam Ali carries himself and thus the film well. If director Rashid sometimes overreaches himself, his film remains a brave attempt to do something different from the usual documentarian or realist approach to the subject of contemporary migration to Europe. Like Utøya July 22 and most definitely like The Most Dangerous Game, intentionally or otherwise, it posits itself as an action-adventure thriller bordering on horror. And that’s a strategy that proves highly effective.
The suggestion here is that Europe isn’t just a land mass that’s closing its borders to immigrants, it’s actually destroying them as they come in. Given the film’s grounding in intensive research, that’s a pretty terrifying thesis, making the film a must see.
Europa is out in cinemas and on demand in the UK on Friday, March 18th.