The Great Immigrant Hope

Jonathan Dean, author and Senior Writer for Sunday Times Culture, takes a very personal look at Aki Kaurismäki's immigration comedy-drama, The Other Side of Hope, framing his observations within the lives of two such immigrants: his grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom were forced from their home countries in search of a more prosperous life. 

There is much to like about The Other Side of Hope. For one, it takes a refugee's story with all the struggle and uncertainty that comes with, and makes it funny. Not, you know, Will Ferrell raucous funny. That would be odd. Rather, much like Aki Kaurismäki's other films, it has a dark drollness that humanises its subjects. Most people in tough situations can't help but find things to find amusing and The Other Side of Hope has a lightness that naturally occurs to most people in life; even those in trouble. Being in a society means that you have to bounce off others and, given that others are peculiar, it is very hard to be sad all the time. Other people give you the chance to forget, for a while.

As a Syrian asylum seeker in Finland, Khaled (Sherman Haji) starts to work at a restaurant run by the depressed Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen). The staff are strange, different, desperate, while the father-son bond between Wikstrom and Khaled is cute and unexpected. These sort of things happen - and the thing I like most about The Other Side of Hope is how Kaurismaki places his refugee squarely in society. There is objection to him - of course there is. The streets are full of people who want the streets to themselves. But Khaled is there, in Finland, and is no less suited to the daily grind than anyone else.  

Which brings me neatly to a book I've written; 'I Must Belong Somewhere'. It is about my great-grandfather, David, and my grandfather Heinz, both refugees - Jewish ones - but in different wars. David fled what was then Poland, now Ukraine, to Vienna in 1914. Heinz fled Vienna and came to London in 1939. Their stories are fascinating. David, for instance, was blinded by shrapnel in the First World War, before training to be a barrister using braille, being sent to a concentration camp, surviving, and then going back to live in the very city, Vienna, that had treated his family so badly. Just before he died, he wrote, "I have maintained towards this highly disagreeable world a fairly positive attitude," which is flatly astounding.

Jonathan Dean's great-grandfather David and family. 

Jonathan Dean's great-grandfather David and family. 

Using a memoir that David wrote plus diaries Heinz kept as a refugee, my book came together, drawing modern parallels too, while meeting modern day Syrian refugees much like Khaled in Kaurismäki's film along the way.

So much in my grandfather's diaries reminds me of the lead in The Other Side of Hope. Both are men who take to whatever work they can get, in order to make some sort of life in their new country. Heinz was a city boy in Austria, but in England, he worked on farms, rubbing up alongside a whole host of characters and colleagues, some nice, some racist - similar to Khaled's experiences. He finds absurdities in the English way of life, and picks up our natural obsession fast:

"Very miserable day in rainy Reading," he wrote in one diary entry. 

Much like Khaled in The Other Side of Hope, Heinz is a refugee who, for the first years of his stay, is a pinball in the confusing country he has been flung into. People like this choose these countries because they are safe, not necessarily because they read a decent TripAdvisor review about some off-grid hotels. What happens to them once they have arrived is the story few tell. All the noise is about the journey and the tiny percentage of bad apples. What of the quiet majority who are trying to be accepted to, hopefully, stay? 

Those are the stories, I think, that can help people understand the knotty situation better. At one point, Khaled receives advice. "The melancholy ones are always deported first," he is told by a fellow refugee and, so, he puts on a smile. Later, that smile is more relaxed, as he thinks he is starting to settle. That humanity and hope is what this film - and my book - looks to put across.

Jonathan Dean - headshot.jpg

Jonathan Dean is Senior Writer for Sunday Times Culture, regularly interviewing the world’s biggest stars. He has also contributed pieces to Sunday Times News Review on subjects ranging from Remembrance Day to racism in the Oscars nominations, and occasionally writes for The Pool. He lives in Walthamstow, London.

Twitter: @JonathanDean_

'I Must Belong Somewhere: Three Men, Two Migrations, One Endless Journey' by Jonathan Dean is published by W&N in hardback at £16.99,