Deadpan Finns, French cynicism and Brazilian fantasy at Jerusalem Film Fest

Annual movie event opens July 13 with more than 180 films playing throughout the capital

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Another side of Helsinki is portrayed in “The Other Side of Hope,” one of the award-winning films being screened in the upcoming Jerusalem Film Festival, opening next week on July 13.

This quirky Finnish film from director Aki Kaurismäki, whose previous work includes “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989) and “The Match Factory Girl” (1990) and who is known for his quaint, deadpan dialogue and droll sets, takes on a big topic: Syrian refugees seeking asylum in this harbor city, framed within a tale of two very different men fleeing their old, very different lives.

The film, which won Kaurismäki the Berlinale silver bear for directing, is in the classic style of the director, who sets his story in a Helsinki that seems to bear little resemblance to the hip city currently high on the global tourist map.

Kaurismäki’s Helsinki is a drab, seemingly Soviet-era location, where police officers still use manual typewriters and there’s nary a cellphone seen throughout the entire film.

The drama, however, is current, as Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who has escaped the violence of Aleppo, emerges from a coal freighter, black with soot, and seeks legal asylum in Helsinki.

He spends time in an immigration center, and when told he’s going to be deported, goes underground and meets up with the film’s other main character, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a down-on-his-luck shirt salesman who’s left his wife — tossing his ring on the simple kitchen table as she chain-smokes, her hair in curlers and a large potted cactus by her side — to embark on his own adventure, selling his inventory and doubling the profit in a high-stakes poker game, in order to seek out a new profession as a restaurant owner.

Deadpan mannerisms are de rigueur in Kaurismäki’s films, and Khaled’s nearly expressionless affect isn’t surprising, given the violence, death and trauma he’s undergone during the Syrian civil war.

As Wikström, Kuosmanen takes the blank tone to new depths but exhibits some surprising humanity when he offers Khaled refuge at his eatery, the Golden Pint, a remarkably drab restaurant bar that comes with a staff of three.

The quirky staff of 'xx' in Finnish film 'The Other Side of Hope' (Courtesy 'The Other Side of Hope')
The quirky staff of the Golden Pint in Finnish film ‘The Other Side of Hope’ (Courtesy)

He ends up being a pretty good guy who gives salary advances to his inherited staff and buys a fake identity for Khaled, as well as offering him a job and lodging in the underground storeroom he once used for shirts.

The characters become a refuge for one another as the film takes some unexpected and humorous turns — Khaled evades immigration inspectors, the restaurant becomes a going concern and Wikström and his staff try their hand at serving sushi, smearing slabs of wasabi on their sticky rice and substituting herring when they run out of fresh fish.

It’s a portrait of loneliness and the search for a place to belong, magnified by Khaled’s personal tragedy. There are also many moments of humor and pathos, delivered quietly and carefully amid the deliberately pokey calm of Kaurismäki’s set, which includes street musicians, public buses and Wikström’s 1950s-era car.

The story of Syrian refugees is what unifies the film, as Wikström helps Khaled save his sister, lost during their run across countries and borders, and bring her to Helsinki. There are anti-immigration thugs as well, almost comic in their violence and a heavy-handed reminder of the political streams out there.

“The Other Side of Hope” is part of the ten-day annual summer film festival’s lineup of more than 180 films. The event opens with a screening at Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool on Thursday, July 13, of “Redoubtable,” Michel Hazanavicius’s biopic about director Jean-Luc Godard and his relationship with his second wife, actress Anne Wiazemsky.

Other films to look for are the tense Iranian drama “A Man of Integrity,” director Mohammad Rasoulof’s film about corruption and injustice in a small Iranian village, which won the Certain Regard competition at Cannes.

The Brazilian film “The Ornithologist” is about a birdwatcher whose boat capsizes and who is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims, embarking on a strange and fascinating erotic adventure.

The Yiddish-English “Menashe” is Joshua Weinstein’s achingly sweet and sorrowful film about a widowed ultra-Orthodox man in Brooklyn, fighting to take care of his only son.

Also recommended are the South Korean doppelgänger film “Yourself and Yours,” the French-Belgian comedy “Lost in Paris,” about a small-town Canadian librarian who heads to Paris to save her elderly aunt, and “Tehran Taboo,” an animated look at life in Iran.

This year’s festival will screen films around the city, as well as at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. See the Jerusalem Film Festival site for films, times and tickets.

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