Review: The Visitors
by Marta Bałaga
- Veronika Lišková heads to the end of the Earth, only to realise that problems – and people – are always the same
Granted a Special Mention at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival this year (see the news) – with the main award in the Czech Joy category given to the excellent arthouse singalong Kapr Code [+see also:
interview: Lucie Králová
film profile] – Veronika Lišková’s The Visitors [+see also:
film profile] goes from “why would you even go there” to “I can’t believe they don’t want you to stay”.
That’s how it feels for its protagonist Zdenka, a social anthropologist who moves to Svalbard, Norway, and is actually pretty happy there with her family. But even life at the end of the world is riddled with problems, it turns out, and even at the end of the world you can feel unwelcome.
Which is, frankly, a bit shocking. This is an extremely harsh environment we are talking about, albeit one that comes with a significant perk – apparently, anyone can come here and settle down, as long as they have a job and a place to live. Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost permanent settlement – where, at least according to one tourist website, “the extraordinary is ordinary” and “the North Pole is right around the corner from the pub” – has people migrating from all sorts of places, 52 different countries at the time of shooting. Predictably, it causes some drama. Predictably, some locals don’t like it one bit.
Lišková listens to the other side, too, also through Zdenka – after all, her job is all about asking questions. That’s what she keeps on doing, interviewing all kinds of residents. What you get sometimes is a familiar litany of “when in Norway, speak Norwegian” and someone lamenting the fact that the community is now full of “short-time visitors or long-time tourists”. It’s all very recognisable and has been for a while, with the ongoing refugee crisis. But this setting, the combination of unforgiving weather, mining infrastructure and the constant promise of a reindeer sighting, makes it almost comical.
There are other significant changes touched upon, too, as the weather becomes unpredictable, even in Longyearbyen. In a place that’s all about “big nature, small man”, it can be scary sometimes. For some, exploring such fears can be liberating, presumably, and maybe that’s why Zdenka falls in love with the place: when faced with such a scale, everything else seems reassuringly small. Until all these small issues and disparaging comments start influencing your life and make you realise there is no stable future. And that you are tolerated, not accepted.
This small yet effective film, which world-premiered at Locarno, could be seen as rather upsetting – if there is no acceptance in a place like that, made of snow and rocks, it probably can’t be found anywhere else at this point. But Lišková chose a strong family to follow, one that doesn’t wallow, although it’s hard to look at Zdenka’s blank face when told that she “shouldn’t be here”. Then again, they have other options, other places to go, and they have each other. For others, who came hoping that this faraway land would finally grant them some freedom, the journey will have to continue.
The Visitors was produced by Czech outfit Cinémotif Films, and co-produced by Ten Thousand Images (Norway), Peter Kerekes (Slovakia) and Czech Television. Its world sales are handled by Taskovski Films.
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