Reviewed by: Chris

Seidl’s Import/Export, for all its slender storyline, exposes uncomfortable boundaries between fiction and fly-on-the-wall documentary - and it’s no half-hearted experiment. Shocking yet beautiful, the film seamlessly blends real people’s lives with those of the story's protagonists, as Seidl sincerely questions our understanding of what might be acceptable. And then kicks it home with a vengeance. As you wince at the relentless coldness, graphic sexuality, or the bodily functions of an Alzheimer's patient, the film twists the screw. Yes, this is not only realistic, it is real. Maybe too real. It is happening. And much as you might struggle in the early stages, it is undeniably Art.

Yet rather than voicing a triumph of style over substance, Seidl succeeds in gripping the audience from moment to moment, through more than two and a half hours of unpredictably fascinating events. I admit I half expected a punctuated boredom from what is an inconsequential plot. But I experienced one of the more captivatingly fresh films of the year.

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Olga and Paul travel in opposite directions in Europe. From East to West and West to East. Trying to better their lots. Their paths never cross. But the extreme challenge of environments outside all comfort zones leaves them struggling to cope. They both have the remarkable grit of people who will do anything to survive. And, if we initially see them as lowlife (Olga leaves her child, and Paul favours a dog over his girlfriend), their desire to escape the hole they're in - and ultimately be better people than those around them - is inspiring.

Olga, a trained nurse who is consistently short-changed by her employers, at first gets a job as an online sex-worker. She steels herself to do her best, but is flummoxed by the first client’s belligerent and barely understandable orders. When she gets work as a cleaner in neighbouring Austria, she is treated as an ignorant foreigner, a lower form of life. There to be victimised. In a hospital, her Ukrainian qualifications are worth nothing. She performs lowly duties at the behest of people whose irksome superiority belies their insecurity and lack of real understanding.

Paul goes through arduous training to become a security guard, but his confidence is shattered after a gang of youths belittle him. Owing money, he’s forced to work for his mother’s boyfriend, Michael. And Michael turns out to be a sex pervert. As they deliver gumball machines to inhospitable Eastern European housing estates, Paul becomes increasingly determined to climb from the gutter into which he's constantly pushed.

Each scene is a surprise. We cannot guess how either character will realistically handle their impossible choices. No-one would want the crappy hand life has dealt these two. So there is grudging admiration that they don’t just lie down and die. Our own discomfort seizes on any humorous element as light relief, but it is the suppressed emotion and compassionate inner light of Olga that warms us. Her reasonableness in dealing with her aggressors. Her courage in bringing some happiness to an overlooked geriatric. The fact that no-one will ever thank her, and that the authenticity seems beyond question. It is not easy to dismiss.

There are very few professional actors in this film. A prostitute on whom Michael unleashes misogynistic and impotent anger (in front of his step-son) is a real prostitute playing a prostitute. The mentally deteriorating patients whom Olga tries to care for are real mentally deteriorating patients (Seidl went to great lengths to get permission to film them). Perhaps in the way ‘docudrama’ takes re-created scenes to portray real events, Import/Export takes real people and real locations to portray fictional lives. Like her character, Ekateryna Rak had never been to the West before playing Olga. Some of her frustration is genuine. But whatever the methods, the resulting performances are remarkable.

While we might wish that the film had lingered a little less on the faecal or gynaecological minutiae, there is no denying the movie’s structural intensity, its social relevance, or the fact that it is hypnotic viewing. The main problem might be getting bums on seats for almost three hours of bleak and seemingly trivial life episodes.

Two unscripted slices of life that are very different to the world of any Western cinemagoer. Yet the spontaneity maintains a taut emotional precision. And carefully framed scenes are visually memorable. We recall Olga's painful struggle to express her feelings even as she fights to use a language not her own. A man repeatedly tries to start a motorbike that doesn't start - a haunting, lasting image of futility. Import/Export is rather like a great photographer who creates beauty from the garbage of the back-alley.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2008
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Import/Export packshot
A man travels from Western to Eastern Europe while a woman travels in the opposite direction, yet their journeys have much in common.
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Director: Ulrich Seidl

Writer: Veronika Franz, Ulrich Seidl

Starring: Ekateryna Rak, Paul Hofmann, Michael Thomas, Maria Hofstätter, Georg Friedrich, Natalya Baranova, Natalja Epureanu, Erich Finsches, Herbert Fritsch, Susanne Lothar

Year: 2007

Runtime: 141 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Austria


CFF 2008

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