“You always through stones on the path”
It’s been twenty-five years since Xavier Koller‘s Reise der Hoffnung [Journey of Hope] won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and yet watching it today feels urgently contemporary. Between the political unrest in Turkey and volatile international discourse pertaining to refugees as countries vehemently close their borders and American presidential candidate Donald Trump craves an opportunity to send foreigners back where they came, hope has become synonymous with naiveté. It’s not all bad with the Olympics recognizing a refugee team and many stunning tales of heroism trying to rekindle a sense of optimism for those stuck in impossible situations still striving to escape, but those tales convert a lot less people into compassionate human beings than unrelated acts of terrorism devolve human beings into paranoid, oft-times racist monsters.
This is the story we need to remember how we aren’t alone in this world. It reminds us that problems abroad shouldn’t be ignored because they affect mankind on a deeper level than mere nationality. As long as people are oppressed in squalor, peace is an illusion. I’m not saying foreigners should cheat the system by paying crooks their life savings for fake passports to roll the dice and hope no one actually checks if they’re refugees or not, but maybe less would go the illegal route if the legal immigration process was more transparent. Just because Haydar Sener (Necmettin Çobanoglu) was surviving on his farm with wife Meryem (Nur Sürer), seven children, and parents doesn’t mean the dream to give his children a better fate didn’t exist.
Leaving Maraş for Switzerland promises paradise. It wouldn’t be perfect considering the children must be left behind, but if he and his wife find work they may one day be reunited. You have to try, right? People were going all the time, writing back about hopeful prospects. It seemed so easy, so reliable a choice to embrace. But what happens when you sell everything to afford the tickets and Meryem decides she cannot leave her family? What happens when you arrive at the boat that will take you into Italy with your young son (Emin Sivas‘ Mehmet Ali) who doesn’t have a passport or a ticket to board? Suddenly this flawless path becomes rocky and these “friends” with your best interests in mind start asking for more compensation.
As much as this story concerns the Sener family’s survival, it’s also a chillingly accurate mirror of society. There are corruptors—even Turkish expats like Yaman Okay‘s Türkmen—using their positions of charity to bleed their victims dry and the pure at heart, those who may not always start selflessly but often discover the kindness and empathy that forms their true character within like Mathias Gnädinger‘s Ramser. Some strangers seem up to no good like Adama’s (Erdinç Akbas) ever-present gentleman and others possess too much faith to understand exactly how badly the tide can turn (Yasar Güner‘s Haci Baba). At a certain point everyone on the journey must stick together, but it’s inevitable that some may need to fail in order for the rest to succeed.
It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions and suspense as men we know to have the potential for violence position Haydar precariously onto a cliff of his own making rising higher with each passing day. And right when we think there’s no turning back, someone inexplicably comes along with a gift of money, goodwill, or decency for his/her fellow man. We remember the good and bad in equal measure, investing ourselves in a small role like Dietmar Schönherr‘s coyote Massimo because of his light touch to alleviate little Mehmet Ali’s carsickness with an herb and a smile. He becomes an angel of sorts as Türkmen falls deeper into the hellish existence he relishes with glee. Ultimately no one can be trusted: not Mother Nature and certainly not God.
Koller and co-writer Feride Çiçekoglu actually do an interesting thing with Haci Baba by using his pious man to take religion out of the equation. The fact Haydar and the rest are Muslim Turks has no bearing on our wanting them to succeed. Allah isn’t putting them in their current positions; they are doing so themselves. So when Haci Baba offers water for the rest to wash their feet for prayer, their quick response of “I’m not thirsty” becomes a telling revelation. This isn’t a spiritual journey and the title isn’t Journey of Faith. Fate doesn’t always deal these refugees a fair hand, but you cannot say they didn’t have a choice as far as where they eventually end up. It’s a human story full of human flaws.
And by “flaws” I mean positive and negative. You could consider Ramser’s about-face into amiability a flaw because it ultimately lands him in hot water with the stowaways he seeks to smuggle into Switzerland. It’s a flaw as far as self-preservation, but not where karma is concerned. The negatives mostly stem from fear—Meryem’s refusal to leave without at least one child, Haydar’s timidity in explaining to their benefactor that three would be traveling rather than two, and the thought of deportation as a result worse than death. They know what going back holds so anything they can do to prevent a return is attempted until hope gradually turns into despair and salvation suddenly seems out of reach. The initial excitement of adventure very abruptly transforms into nightmare.
The acting’s superb with Çobanoglu shining bright as a conflicted father fighting for his family’s wellbeing. We feel his frustration when the cards stack up against him and bask in the warmth of his love when strangers show unexpected kindness. And we watch his hope become hopelessness as he steps onto the blizzard-covered mountain pass. The promise of new life turns into a struggle, his Haydar realizing no amount of riches holds worth without life and freedom to enjoy them. Desperation sets in as we hold him in our hearts, tragedy knocking at the door. It often takes the wind getting knocked out of us to understand the stakes others face on a daily basis that we luckily never need to worry about. Koller successfully reminds us all.
Journey of Hope returned to the Locarno Film Festival in 2016, the site it debuted in 1990, with a 25th anniversary 2K restoration.