Review: Living Together
by Elena Lazić
- Thomas Fürhapter’s documentary shows the challenges of integration in Austria while celebrating its diversity
“Everybody wants to live together / Why can't we be together” sang the recently departed Timmy Thomas in 1972, in his hit anti-war song inspired by the ravages of the war in Vietnam. Centred on integration courses given to recent immigrants to Vienna, Austria, Thomas Fürhapter’s documentary Living Together, premiering in the Documentary Competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival, also uses the word living not in its relatively casual meaning of co-existing within a space, but in the much more urgent sense of not dying or not killing. Though not all the people seen in the film are war refugees, all are following courses concerned with how to avoid clashes between people from very different backgrounds and cultures — precisely the kind of clashes that could lead, further down the line, to more conflict of the kind that causes displacement in the first place.
A fly on the wall, Fürhapter lets instructors and students do all the talking and their conversations play out for some lengths of time. It’s an unobtrusive approach that immediately recalls the cinema of Frederick Wiseman, as does Fürhapter’s interest in the humanity and variety of his subjects within a bureaucratic context. The director frames each participant individually against the white background of the nondescript meeting rooms, making it look as though they were having their professional portrait taken in a studio and emphasising their individuality, even as they are shown to be interacting with the group.
Wiseman however would have probably taken an interest in the actual organisation of these “integration classes,” the decisions made regarding topics to discuss, and the rulebook that instructors must surely be tasked with following. It would have been interesting here to get more insight into this process, as some of the most fascinating moments in Living Together stem from the contrasting ways in which teachers in each language approach similar subjects. How does each instructor decide the ways in which to discuss sexuality, human rights, or religion? And on that latter point, what tools are they given to handle conversations around religious practices, considering that they always seem to hit the same wall: that of the limit between the public and the private? Some of those questions do not appear to be solvable, at least not on a general scale, and Fürhapter shows that the value of such discussions lies more in raising awareness about different perspectives than in finding a unique solution that could work for everyone.
For other questions of integration, however, instructors appear to rely on the same rather odd basis for argument: in warning their students about what behaviours and habits they might expect from Austrians (meaning, the people already living in Austria), they often seem to be perpetuating another set of clichés — this one not about, say, Chinese or Spanish people, but about Austrians. The film is at its most interesting when it grapples with this central contradiction: classes designed to help immigrants from various cultures deal with the (sometimes racist) clichés they can expect Austrians to embrace, are themselves using another set of clichés for that very purpose. Although Fürhapter takes a generally sympathetic position regarding the difficult task instructors have to deal with, he does not conceal the many absurdities of their methodology. If, for example, an old Austrian woman is “terrified” upon hearing the Islamic call to prayer, students are told they should not think her racist — she simply isn’t used to hearing it. On the other hand, if a Chinese woman isn’t used to men greeting her with a kiss on the cheek, she should learn to adapt to that cultural practice. If Austrians are given classes about accepting different cultures, this film does not show them.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.