There's nothing new about the cinematic tool of “protagonist is hunted through unfamiliar territory by representatives of a cruel authoritarian bureaucracy”. From '60s and '70s sci-fi, such as The Prisoner and Logan's Run to more recent fare such as The Running Man and The Hunger Games, we're all familiar with the concept.
Iraqi-Italian director Haider Rashid, however, has taken this well-worn cinematic device and created something entirely different from these sci-fi favourites, with his latest film, Europa. The movie premiered as part of Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival last week.
While classic sci-fi protagonists' flights typically take place in some dystopian future world, Rashid's film takes place very much in the present, on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria. Young Iraqi refugee Kamal has been brought here by people smugglers, but on his arrival at his expected European utopia he finds himself abandoned and at the mercy of gangs of Bulgarian refugee hunters who pursue the incomers through the vast border forest and gun them down, with the tacit support of local authorities.
The simple change of time and place from the genre norm sounds minimal, but its effect – combined with a single camera that spends almost the entire film jammed, fly-on-the-wall-style close, in Kamal's face, a pounding soundtrack, and Rashid's disorientating decision to leave the speech of the Bulgarian hunters unsubtitled – is a harrowing and disturbing viewing experience far removed from the polished trials of The Hunger Games's Katniss Everdeen and co. The film stars Libyan-British actor Adam Ali, who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award this year for his role as Zain in Apple TV's Little America (the show itself was also nominated for a Bafta).
Rashid, whose previous two features have been much more in the family drama sphere, admits that it was a challenge to step into an unfamiliar genre, although he seems pleased with the results.
“I wasn't sure I was able to make a film like this. Usually I've done drama, but I think we found a balance and made it work,” he tells The National. “I really wanted to make a film that could be harrowing and claustrophobic and tough because I feel we're so anaesthetised right now from all the information.
"The idea was to create an experience that was shocking because I feel in Europe the past few years it's been so difficult to deal with these issues. There's so much xenophobia and hate and propaganda that it's hard to even understand the concept of empathy. The tropes of a thriller are really useful in that, and I think using fiction in this way can go beyond what even a documentary can do.”
The thriller treatment is certainly effective at conveying Rashid's message. However, he says his film is not entirely fictional. “When I first wrote the film, I wrote a version that to me was quite extreme, and then when I went to do research in Bulgaria I realised that it was actually much worse than I thought,” he says. “The situation is complicated because there's a whole micro-economy around people smuggling, and it's not small. What you saw – the hunting, the shooting, the looting, the stealing, the beating – all of that happens in reality.
“I've met women who travelled while pregnant. I've spoken to them and you see when you look in their eyes and – you just know,” Rashid says. “Everybody was telling me 'we ended up spending days in the forest, we had no food, water, we ate leaves.' So what you see in the film is really what happens. It feels like it's something so far away from reality, but it's really not.”
Given Europa's disturbing subject matter, and Rashid's Iraqi heritage, it's unsurprising that he hopes audiences will take more away from this cinematic experience than an-hour-and-a-half or so of rollicking chase scenes, and he is already having discussions with NGOs and human rights groups to try and maximise his latest work's effect in the real world.
“I would like it to be useful because otherwise it's just pointless. We're talking to human rights organisations, we're going to have some activities, some tours, Q&As and discussions. I've done this in the past with my other shows that were about social issues, and I really feel when you're actually doing a screening with an audience and the audience asks you questions and it's making them think, I know it's a cliche, but even if there's one person in the audience who has something happen inside of them, that thing will propagate, even if it's just one person per screening.”
There's one further important part of Rashid's plan for the film post-Cannes – to make sure it is seen by audiences in Iraq, and to give them a point of view they're unlikely to hear from people smugglers eager to take their hard-earned cash.
“We're definitely going to screen it in Iraq as well. We're already working on that because I'd like the viewers of Iraq to watch this film, to understand what's happening, to feel there is somebody who's at least thinking about paying attention, and maybe they'll feel a tiny bit less alone.”