English writer Bruce Chatwin had a theory that all human history somehow revolved around our roots in nomadism. Although he never systematically enunciated it, there are traces of the idea scattered through his work, most notably in “The Songlines” and “In Patagonia.” In a strange way, one hears echoes of a key line from the Haggadah, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” But in Jewish thought, the wandering, the exile, the galut is nothing but a prelude to redemption and the return to Home.
The world’s escalating number of refugees and forced migrants has moved to the front of the line in the culture industries. The new issue of the excellent magazine World Literature Today (worldlit.org) features a special supplement, “Lives/Interrupted: Migration Stories,” drawing on writers from the Balkans, Argentina, Israel, Greece and Iran, some of them in exile, others involved in the lives of local refugee communities. The lead review looks at German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, “Go, Went, Gone,” devoted to the same subject.
Closer to home, look at the lineup for this year’s New York Film Festival, which runs Sept. 28-Oct. 15. The focus on displaced populations runs though the festival, from the fiction features and documentaries to special events like the showcase program “Four Sisters,” which screens four world premieres by Claude Lanzmann.
One of the festival’s refugee-centered films, “Sea Sorrow,” marks the directorial debut of Vanessa Redgrave. It is a deeply felt and well-intended piece of work. It has the feel of a pièce d’occasion, made in response to a specific piece of legislation in the UK designed to bring in a tiny handful of homeless refugee children from the catastrophic “jungle” camp of Calais, and the film is directed almost totally to that goal. Redgrave very consciously draws strong parallels between the UK’s stubborn refusal to admit more than a fraction of Jewish children through the Kindertransports, and the similar unwillingness to take on more than 350 kids last year.
The unmistakable subtext here is the parallel between the early indifference of Britain to Nazi Germany and the rising tide of nativist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim right-wing groups that, in Great Britain, culminated in Brexit. Given that one of the most impassioned speakers on behalf of the child refugees is Lord Alfred Dubs, himself one of the 3,000 children admitted in the late 1930s, the comparison is inescapable. And the film is at its most effective when drawing attention to the similarities, particularly in a passage in which Emma Thompson reads with withering irony from a letter to the Times of London about the plight of two young Jewish women facing repatriation to Nazi-occupied Central Europe in 1938.
Regrettably, “Sea Sorrow” has a hard time moving beyond its justified indignation and admirable determination. The tone of much of the film feels like promotional footage for a fundraising telethon; there are several snippets of Shakespeare that, while well-performed, seem to exist mainly to remind us of Great Britain’s admirable theatrical history, and apart from the very effective opening scenes in the Italian refugee center, we seldom hear the voices of the refugees themselves.
Aki Kaurismaki’s latest, “The Other Side of Hope,” part of the festival’s main slate, treats the same subject but with a decidedly different and altogether more effective spin. The Finnish director is noted for his dry, detached tone and fondness for almost cartoonish humor, and both those traits receive an ample and smart workout.
“Other Side” works around two parallel narratives, the situation of Khaled, a Syrian auto mechanic whose family was killed by a missile attack in Aleppo, and Wikstrom, a middle-aged businessman who walks out on his alcoholic wife and sells off his wholesale shirt business to open a restaurant in Helsinki. Kaurismaki treats the former story with the full blast of his comic genius, painting a portrait of the unhappy middle-class as a cross between a Douglas Sirk Hollywood melodrama writ small and a Warner Brothers cartoon. The director covers the killing of the Syrian’s family with deadpan raucousness and then covers the pain of the ill-sorted residents of the refugee location center, which amplifies the deeper feelings of the Syrian and the Kafkaesque ironies of the restaurant owner.
The result is surely one of the best of many recent films to be “ripped from the headlines,” proclaiming the seemingly unending miseries of much of the world’s most vulnerable people. These stories are all too familiar to Jewish Week readers: we’ve been here before, and we know how too many of them end.