Indie cinema packs a Hollywood punch in unflinching Berlinale refugee drama

By Thomson Reuters Feb 23, 2024 | 12:37 PM

By Thomas Escritt

BERLIN (Reuters) – From an Aleppo operating theatre under bombardment to the sea off Greece, Brandt Andersen’s refugee drama “The Strangers’ Case” unfolds with the pulse and urgency of a Hollywood thriller.

And that is no coincidence, said Palestinian-Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri, who plays the doctor in that operating theatre, saving one patient’s life as another pulls a gun on her.

“Brandt invented a new way of doing indie cinema, making it look like a big blockbuster, but dedicating the content to indie cinema,” she said. “We have never seen a film about Syrian refugees told with such high production values.”

The film is unsparing in the way it presents the dilemmas faced by the film’s successive protagonists: Al Massri’s character Amira, forced in an instant to abandon everything to bring her daughter to safety, is only the first parent shown faced with an agonising decision involving her child.

“Her mission is to get her daughter out because that’s what we become when we’re parents and refugees,” she said. “You have one mission: to get your kids to safety.”

Andersen seemed overcome by emotion ahead of the premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday, dabbing back tears as he explained the vision behind a film on which he had worked for over a decade.

“I just wanted to make a film that was about this very important topic but also moved at a pace that my kids would be willing to watch it,” he told an emotionally charged news conference.

Repeatedly, the audience is confronted with painful ambiguities: the ruthless people smuggler is revealed to be a single father trying to buy a better life for his beloved son.

Far from the war, a middle class family in Europe is shown doubting whether anything the refugees face can justify the perilous journeys they undertake.

It is characteristic of the film that it refuses to the very end to give that question an unambiguous answer, praising characters for doing what they must.

“He is a simple man doing what a simple man must do in times of crisis: help other people,” said actor Constantine Markoulakis of his character, a Greek coastguard.

The shadows of other crises loomed over the news conference, with Al Massri, wearing the keffiyeh that symbolises the Palestinian liberation movement, opening her remarks with a call for “ceasefire now”, referencing Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Gaza.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Josie Kao)