by Matthew Boas
- Amsterdam-born director Ben Sombogaart’s latest feature is a confident piece of work that attempts to tackle the refugee crisis from a very European perspective
Rafaël [+see also:
film profile], the latest feature by Dutch director Ben Sombogaart, which premiered at this year’s Netherlands Film Festival, was released in cinemas in his home country last month and is now screening at the Cairo International Film Festival (20-29 November) as part of the International Panorama, is one of the countless recent films hinging on the refugee crisis, but it successfully examines the topic from a very European perspective. Shot in Dutch, English, Arabic, French and Italian, it tells a story (co-penned by Tijs Van Marle and Massimo Gaudioso) about the feisty Kimmy (a confident, credible and commendable performance by Dutch actress Melody Klaver, best known for various Dutch TV series such as Ik Weet Wie Je Bent) and Tunisian Nazir (Belgian-born actor Nabil Mallat), who strike up a relationship while in Sousse. Their love blossoms, and soon they get married in the Tunisian city.
But things take a turn for the worse, as they happen to have tied the knot just before the Arab Spring kicks off, and the ensuing chaos forces them to make a beeline for Europe, back to Kimmy’s native Netherlands, along with their friend, the ever-optimistic and somewhat infantile Rafaël (Mehdi Meskar). As the situation spirals out of control and they try to leave the country, Nazir is stopped from accompanying his pregnant wife to Europe because he lacks the necessary documents, and so she reluctantly (to put it mildly) continues on her way, leaving Nazir and Rafaël to attempt two illegal crossings over the Mediterranean. The second attempt proves fatal for Rafaël, but Nazir makes it to Lampedusa, where he is locked away in a refugee camp and desperately tries to contact Kimmy. They are eventually reunited, and even though Kimmy can prove that he is her husband, he is not allowed to leave the camp, and so his wife undertakes an epic struggle to get him released so that they can live a normal life as a family.
Based on a true story, the film puts an interesting spin on the migration crisis by homing in on a case with strong European connections, highlighting the sheer lunacy of European bureaucracy. Despite Kimmy doing extensive research into freedom-of-movement laws on the continent and verifying that all prerequisites for Nazir’s release have been met, she constantly receives responses such as “I’m only doing my job – there are rules,” and gets passed from one government office to another, with no one claiming responsibility for this particular administrative area. Her frustration at the situation is expressed excellently by Klaver, who imbues her character with exactly the right degree of desperation, emotion and determination (when asked by her icy and unfeeling mother what she will do if she finds out that Nazir has died once she reaches Lampedusa, she replies, “If he’s dead, I’ll bring his coffin home”) that anyone in this situation would rightly feel. The most ridiculous and telling thing is that in the end, she has to resort to making a scene at the camp itself and relying on the media attention this generates in order to get her story out there and make her quest progress.
The backstory is explained, mainly during the early part of the movie, through smatterings of hand-held camera footage, where the colourful and vivid beachside larks of the flashbacks contrast dramatically with the darkness and despair of the situation in Tunisia during the uprising. Despite some minor niggles, such as the irritating, bass-heavy, ominous “boom” sounds used for virtually every jump cut, even when nothing particularly dramatic is happening, and the short blasts of music (courtesy of Hannes De Maeyer) that frankly only overemphasise the emotions evoked in the most sentimental scenes, this is a solid piece of work that gives us food for thought and, if there’s any justice, should make those in power sit up and take notice of how to adopt a more humanistic and compassionate attitude to the refugee situation.
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