Cinematic Releases: The Other Side of Hope (2017) Reviewed

In 1961, Robert A. Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land about Michael Valentine Smith, a man who after living most of his life amongst Martians returns to Earth. As a consequence of this, he spends the majority of the novel unable to understand human humor. His revelation finally comes when he happens upon the monkey cage at a zoo and observes a series of interactions where one monkey is cruel to a smaller monkey and that monkey is cruel to a yet smaller monkey and so on. After laughing uncontrollably at this he says, “I've found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much . . . because it's the only thing that'll make it stop hurting.”

Aki Kaurismäki's films are known for finding humor in the dumpster fire situations of everyday life. Like Heinlein points out, humor's origin is in observing the misfortune of others and our ability to relate it to the absurdity in our own misfortunes. Kaurismäki's latest film The Other Side of Hope is no exception to this. Set in the Finland of today, the story follows the lives of two men: Wikström, A poker-playing restaurateur played by Sakari Kuosmanen, and Khaled, a newly arrived Syrian refugee played by Sherwan Haji. Although these men appear to have nothing in common, both characters are connected by their desire for a fresh start in life only to have their attempts met with failure. Characteristic of all Kaurismäki films, Timo Salminen's traditionally static camera style coupled with the deadpan delivery of the actors turns these tragic situations into comedy by exposing their ridiculousness. As Kaurismäki himself says, “When all the hope is gone, there is no reason for pessimism.”
As the world is embroiled in the Syrian refugee crisis I think 'ridiculous' is an appropriate word to keep in mind while watching this film. The Other Side of Hope exposes the utter callousness in the west's approach to the scores of refugees showing up on our shores. Winner of the Best Actor Award at both the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards and the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Sherwan Haji's performance walks the audience through the cattle-like experience of being an honest refugee just trying to find asylum from a country in the midst of a civil war. What Kaurismäki reveals is that our lives are not that dissimilar and as human beings we all want the same things. That a little bit of kindness goes a long way. At this year's Berlin Film Festival, Kaurismäki commented on this crisis by saying “Cinema doesn't have such an influence to force the three people who go to see this film that we are all the same. We are all human. And tomorrow it will be you who will be a refugee.”

No officer, it wasn't my weed but I'd prefer if you don't smoke it. 

Maybe it's because I'm from a Midwestern, blue collar family that I find myself falling in love with the films of Aki Kaurismäki. Because I know what if feels like to spend all of your time and energy just trying to survive the garbage heap of working class life. To know what it feels like to be a Martian in a world that promises the promise land just for trying only to have it blow up in your face. When all you can do in response is laugh. In the video essay Hopeful Cynicism, Lewis Bond says “To be Kaurismäkian is to have terrible events happen to those who just wish to be left alone.” I think we can all relate to that.

The Other Side of Hope is the winner seven awards from around the world for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Director along with nine additional nominations including Best Foreign Language Film by The San Diego Film Critics Society. It is a poignantly funny portrayal of the tragedies of today and its timing could not be more appropriate.


-Dawn Stronski