- BERLINALE 2022: In his fiction debut, Philip Scheffner recounts the story of a forced uprooting by playing with negative space
Moving from an essayistic documentary form to fiction does not come without the occasional callback to realism for Philip Scheffner. His feature Europe [+see also:
interview: Philip Scheffner and Merle …
film profile], which had its world premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale, starts with lead actress Rhim Ibrir speaking to the director off screen. “What is the role you’re playing?” he asks her; “What are the similarities with you?” During a conversation after the film, Ibrir states that her character will go back to a normal life.
On one hand, there is nothing normal about the experiences of her character, Zohra. Yet from a wider perspective, her fate is unfortunately one of the most normal experiences today. Zohra lives in a small town in South West France. Having migrated there many years beforehand from Algiers, she has since been undergoing a series of treatments and surgeries for her scoliosis. The film opens with her having her final appointment at the doctor’s (Thierry Cantin).
Her latest operation went well, and all that is left to do is to get some exercise in the pool. For Zohra, this is good news. As she tells her sister Nesrin (Sadya Bekkouche), Nesrin’s partner Farid (Hassane Ziani) and their grandmother (Zoulikha Ibrir), now she can focus on finally bringing her Algerian husband to the country. Currently immersed in the process of prolonging her residence permit, Zohra expects this to be a small formality of family reunification. That is, until her own stay in France suddenly seems to be nearing its end.
What happens if those who join and contribute to our society suddenly vanish? Scheffner tries to express this notion by applying negative space. His main character, whom DoP Volker Sattel follows meticulously with the camera in prolonged sequences of everyday life, disappears. At an appointment at the immigration office, just around the corner from a memorial service for victims of the Algerian War, the clerk just shrugs his shoulders. It’s not his responsibility. And he wants to have a smoke in five, too. This less-than-engaging attitude will be encountered by Zohra again, later, while visiting a lawyer to contest the ruling.
By making Zohra disappear off screen for the middle section of the film, the story loses its anchor. Her sister, who is working as an elderly caregiver, and her colleague (Amandine Demuynck) from the sweatshop all speak into a void off screen, often breaking the fourth wall in doing so. The viewer never hears what the invisible Zohra has to say, but being put in her shoes makes for an uncomfortable experience – from lying to her family about the permit to cancelling her trip to Algiers and being held responsible for her fate, since she got married too fast. There is a blame game going on, which focuses on everything else apart from a system designed to make life difficult for her.
When Zohra finally does reappear, Scheffner inverts this little trick of his. With everyone going about their normal life, they are the ones who suddenly disappear (explained within the story by them going on their summer holidays). The only other person wandering the empty streets and shops is Omar (Marwane Sabri). By taking over Nesrin’s shifts with her elderly patient, as well as house-sitting her flat and taking care of the neighbour’s turtle, Zohra operates from the shadows – she is never really there, but is not yet gone. Her health struggles and plight over her legal status would be just like those of one of the many nameless, but here, it all becomes incredibly personal.
Never getting a break from the monotonous repetition of Zohra’s life, the viewer soon comes to know that her bus takes her from “La Poste” to “Piscine” to her stop, “Europe”. There is an almost charming allegory in this. One would wish that “Europe” were the final stop for her. But then, the bus picks up speed again, and her final destination is never revealed.
Europe was produced by Pong Film (Germany), and was funded by Blinker Filmproduktion GmbH (Germany), Haut les mains Productions (France), Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (Germany) and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Cinéma (France). It is distributed worldwide by Square Eyes.
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