Awra Tewolde-Berhan explores and compares two different migration narratives told from the Film Africa programme.
Migrating often co-exists with the complexities of identity, which essentially functions on how you imagine yourself to be. Nevertheless both films depict characters that come from a place often romanticised as ‘home’, providing a comforting identity in the most testing times. Hope and Stranded in Canton offer painful reflections of vast yet complex experiences of migration that threaten idealistic visions needed to survive hostile conditions.
Hope follows the shattered dreams of protagonists, Hope and Leonard, who find themselves within the realm of human disaster on a journey to Europe. There is an immediate sense of desperation through the use of long shots that unveil the long and drastic lengths people go to escape dangerous situations, and with this reach safety. Boris Lojkine begins by offering us sobering instructions on how-to-flee, warning survival is bleak. I suppose Lojkine’s power is in the tragic realisation that for his flawed heroes it is who they are within these brief and challenging moments that determine fatal judgment.
Of course I will object tragic statements that so easily condemn the contradictions Hope and Leonard, at times, embody. For those of you that are, as of yet, not privileged to have watched this gem, I must emphasise that this will not be an easy task. The dangerous nature of both lives means they behave excessively, walking almost ghost-like across harsh and remote lands where many do not live to tell. Lojkine uses sexual exploitation to unveil dark results of migration and the callous figures his characters are forced to be. What is most painfully obvious in Hope is subtly, yet equally, raw in Stranded in Canton. Mans Mansson’s increasingly lost Lebrun desperately tries to flee from himself throughout this intriguing film. The opening sequence displays captivating shots of Guangzhou alongside our troubled Lebrun. Yet it is Mansson’s close-up shot that exposes the internal anxieties that comes from leaving the hub. In these brief moments, we find Lebrun contemplating a new world through the eyes of an outsider. One key scene of the protagonist on a train reveals him to be visually different, thus a recipe for loneliness. Both Lojkine and Mansson are fascinated with characters that struggle to maintain a sense of self. Although Hope, Leonard or Lebrun do not create imagined outlooks of self, nevertheless all must unlearn to be new, but not always virtuous, versions of themselves.
However, where both films break away are the economic conditions of those that have from those that have not, which determines experiences of migrating. Lebrun travels across Guangzhou, able to exist within different spaces. Whereas Hope and Leonard, do not have the comforts of Lebrun but rather frantically, move across the depths of North Africa at great cost. In Stranded in Canton, Lebrun is removed from the weight of a community and so, to an extent, free. Mansson’s lonely shots use cuts to unveil Lebrun’s isolating dilemma to succeed in a new and competitive t-shirt business. But perhaps more importantly Mansson is really offering brief moments for Lebrun to reflect and meditate a way to overcome struggles of assimilation. Conversely, Hope and Leonard subverts the social exclusion, which co-exists with being black in hostile spaces, by creating constructed forms of community. In the midst of adversity, Hope explores how community finds security with the intention to fill a void that is ironically morally corrupt. One scene that holds weight is when the Cameroonian chief engulfs in a public outcry to God, which rallies an alliance of Cameroonians against fellow Nigerians. In Stranded in Canton, Lebrun is discontent with his money and so Mansson also uses a similar religious sentiment, providing a much-needed cultural mechanism to gain solace while clinging onto home in the process.
Lojkine and Mansson agree that perhaps the greatest challenge in migrating is negotiating the internal conflicts in upholding the essence of your identity. Both films identify migrating requires reactive instincts, but it is those brief moments of silent reflections that is most revealing of the true effect of migration. An aching loneliness. In this respect both screens give migration a universal understanding, that those lucky to have a place called home will see. In Stranded in Canton, Lebrun must destroy all forms of materialism in order to re-claim his character, gaining an understanding that may not have been discovered in the comforts of home. In Hope too, Leonard and Hope endure horrific experiences yet found each other in a space away from home, the irony being both had to bear immense hardships to do so. If you ask why these characters have to undergo such pain, you will find deep socio-political instabilities at home that should not be ignored. Equally, regardless of one’s economic status, both films highlight blackness adds further friction when removed from the nest.
Awra Tewolde-Berhan is a writer, poet and film enthusiast, proudly perfecting the art of daydreaming. As she explores her Eritrean heritage, she is currently working on a documentary on issues
regarding community and tensions with new refugees. She blogs on film, politics, race and gender and worked as a writer and researcher for the UKIFF (London Iranian Film Festival). Awra holds a BA in English and Film from the University of Portsmouth.