Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"Europa is unrelenting, claustrophobic in the camera's closeness to Kamal." | Photo: Courtesy of Director's Fortnight

Opening text gives us circumstance, complications, stakes. Life and death are separated by a border that is simpler and fairer to draw than one country and another. The notion of safety is punctuated by salients, blood here, pressure there, the certainty and sanctity of skin and kin and flag and face. A young man seeks to cross the actual fence that follows the imaginary contour that separates Turkey from Bulgaria. It is not easy.

Europa is unrelenting, claustrophobic in the camera's closeness to Kamal. There are scenes where we are further away, screen fading to black with consciousness, the blur of focus with breath, breathing, labour and sound in distance and distress. The camera is proximate enough that we see exhaustion, exhilaration, extraordinary terror in each bit of that young face. Spot and snot and sweat and tear, blood and anguish and hope and fear.

Adam Ali is Kamal, a role that does not so much not involve dialogue as never give him someone with whom he can speak. There are confrontations, conversations that never become. The voices on the radio are never a comfort, however close those receiving are, those broadcasting. He is astonishing, in a film with a fixed route and tight construction opportunities for improvisation are limited to the emotional. Shot on location with a physicality that recalls Iñárritu's willingness to push his cast through trenches in The Revenant it feels cold and wet and raw and ragged throughout. Seventeen days of shooting in Tuscany sounds far more idyllic in theory than is seen here, this is a gauntlet.

Chosen for morphological similarity to the actual border, these are real mountains, streams, isolation, even peril. A scene where Kamal climbs a tree ratchets tension up with each branch. Knowing from post-film Q&A that the DP and camera operator were being dragged up by cables in parallel to construct it as a single take is just one of the film's many hidden ingenuities. I was minded of that sweeping shot in Children Of Men where we loop around the car because we can, of tracking shots that have been made possible by drones like the seemingly endless prowl in The Vast Of Night.

Does it give something away to say that the ending is ambiguous? I hope not, because the ending gives so much in being so. Does it give something away that the pursuing forces are credited as "Border Policemen and Migrant Hunters" because the lines and commonalities between them are blurred? I think so. As with The Artist, another film without dialogue (ostensibly) but reliant upon ways of reading, there are subtitles. There are times when their certainties create ambiguities ("guard:" before a statement) and others where they remove them ("relieved breathing"). There are others where they seem to contradict what I thought I heard ("dog panting" might actually be "plastic scraping"). These are minor but disappointing in a film that otherwise does so much to create a sense of place and peril.

From a first meeting with the people smugglers, what on another border would be called coyotes but no less predatory or given to unequal scavenging, we are in a world that even in sunshine is darker than twilight. We don't know who, or how, for some we know how often, and why. We know how much, eight thousand. We know where too, that intersection of Bulgaria and Turkey, a geometric certainty in chain-link and flash-light.

Kamal is not the only one in a football top and anorak, not the only one who runs, not the only one in the woods. He is not the only one who is young, not the only one who is wounded, absolutely not the only one who is afraid. He is also not one that we can look away from, not just because the lens is loathe to leave him but because in a film as tight and personal as this charisma and compassion carry us beside him as surely as the camera.

Europa was shown at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight but this was its UK, possibly even European premiere. Appearing in virtual Q&A moderated by Variety's KJ Yossman director Haider Rashid and star Adam Ali were 'present', though Adam was also able to make it up from Manchester to introduce the film. Covid restrictions have had any number of impacts on films but I am becoming increasingly fond of these pre-recorded Q&As. With simultaneous signing and high quality subtitling it was incredibly accessible, and while it's sometimes nice to get the spontaneity of audience reaction I am grateful that anything "more a comment than a question" was suppressed.

They talked about production realities, the difficulties in finding locations and funding. To discover it was shot in sequence was in retrospect not a surprise, the journey is so closely held that to try to dot back and forth within it seems like it was a road best not taken. There were thanks and praise given to stunt and safety coordinator Ally McLelland, and deservedly so. Ali's performance is muddy and grubby and scrambling as Kamal is, the simulation of peril is often differently dangerous to reality because it must be repeated.

Some 20 takes of that tree climb produce something heart-stopping, soaring, even if we only see the one. Indeed perhaps because we do see just the one, that knowledge that however many start these journeys (and closing text reminds us) it is not that many that end them. At least, not safely, and safety is something that Europa spurns.

It is brave, bold, brilliant. It is brief, too, not quite relentless but bearing that same spiral of tension as Uncut Gems. When it is not ratcheting things tighter it is not allowing decompression, when the springs are still you can see that they are rusting, when the rope is still you can see it frayed. That snare, that trap, is drawn with Kamal as he heads through the borderland, and we keep with him.

He may be more familiar to audiences of Little America on Apple TV but he is front and centre in Rashid's work. He does not carry it on his shoulders as much as drag it with him, ever forward. It is not easy to make a film, nor one as powerful as this. That both and this film achieve so much with each step is credit to all involved. Europa is the kind of project that could make a star, and Ali is deserving of it.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2021
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Europa packshot
Kamal, an Iraqi man trying to enter Europe on foot through the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, is relentlessly pursued through a forest by a group of hunters.

Director: Haider Rashid

Writer: Sonia Giannetto, Haider Rashid

Starring: Adam Ali, Svetlana Yancheva, Mohamed Zouaoui

Year: 2021

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Italy


Cannes 2021
EIFF 2021

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