'Babai': Munich Review
Visar Morina's debut feature, about a young Kosovar kid who follows his immigrant father to Germany, picked up three awards at the recent Munich Film Fest
The 10-year-old protagonist of Babai is single-minded and emotionally immature, and much the same can be said about the movie he’s in. This hypothetically distressing story of a young Kosovar boy who sets out to join his father, who's tried to escape to Germany in hopes of a better life, is the feature debut of writer-director Visar Morina. Winner of three awards at the Munich Film Festival in the New German Cinema section and another two at the recent Karlovy Vary fest, where it played in competition, this is the kind of gravely earnest drama that feels topical and important but that, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be quite pedestrian — and, also because of the rather flat performances, not all that enlightening or transporting. More festival screenings no doubt await, though theatrical opportunities beyond co-producing France and Germany will be limited.
From the film’s first scene, in which 10-year-old Nori (Val Maloku) is hiding inside the trunk of the car that's transporting his father, Gesim (Astrit Kabashi), to the Serbian border, it’s clear that he has no intention of letting his father go anywhere without him, let alone abroad. Nori’s mother left them before the film opens, and the only thing we learn from an uncle is that Gesim was "too soft" with his wife and still is with his son. The fact the protagonist is practically welded to his father is highly inconvenient, since Dad wants to leave for Germany, where hopefully he’ll find a job that brings in more money than hustling cigarettes on the streets in provincial Kosovo. For audiences slow on the uptake, Nori then literally throws himself in front of the bus that Gesim tries to take to depart, though thanks to Nori’s subsequent hospitalization, his father does finally succeed in starting his trip unhindered, leaving Nori in the care of their extended family.
The film is set in the early 1990s, before the Kosovo War, though crossing Europe illegally to get to a country as an undocumented immigrant hasn’t much changed since then and there’s an attempt to link Nori’s quest to what’s going on at Europe’s borders even today. The film’s midsection doesn’t show the perilous journey from Kosovo to Germany via Italy through the eyes of Gesim but, in one of the film’s few good decisions, sticks closely to the perspective of naive little Nori instead. The steadfast rascal defiantly steals money from an uncle and then sets out to follow in his father’s footsteps and hopefully be reunited with him. Of course, and perhaps for the better, the boy has no idea what awaits him on the difficult trip, where he’s forced to forge a makeshift alliance with Valentina (Adriana Matoshi), a woman planning to join her husband in Germany whose warm maternal instinct demonstrates itself early on, when she steals the little boy’s money so she can pay for her own passage.
Writer-director Morina was born in Pristina, Kosovo, but was educated at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and made several shorts that traveled the festival circuit. In his first feature, he keeps the tone not only extremely serious — bordering on the portentous — throughout but on top of that he has a habit of underlining every single difficult step or struggle three times and then going at it with some magic markers to make sure audiences get it (remember that trunk and then the accident involving the bus?). The few times some humor creeps into the proceedings, such as when the entire extended family gathers for a Kosovar wedding and they start the endlessly repetitive ritual of greeting one another and inquiring about everyone’s well-being, there’s a sense that Morina isn’t so much laughing with the characters as laughing at their backward ways.
After many perils and even more coincidences — Valentina’s husband lives in the same town in Germany and knows Gesim — the boy is reunited with his father, who’s being held in an immigration detention center, where his son can’t stay since he’s got no papers and there’s no proof he’s Gesim's son. Here too, scenes tend to be overly didactic: Look at how rich countries are treating these poor people!
But beyond the issues and the stick-figure outlines of the protagonists, there’s no real meat on Babai’s bones. How Nori feels about his crazy odyssey to join his father, for example, is never clear, and it’s hard to fathom what he does and what he doesn’t understand, despite the fact the film’s shot from his perspective. Thankfully, Morina refrained from casting a kid that would’ve upped the cutie factor, which would’ve turned this into a saccharine melodrama. However, the plain and determined-looking Maloku has barely more than one expression, which hampers any sense of how all the social and geopolitical barriers he encounters and needs to overcome or circumvent impact his life and character. That said, the main fault lies with the overly rational way in which the film approaches narrative, which is almost all incident, with no room for any kind of emotional response that’s more nuanced than “determination,” “anger” or “fear of abandonment.” As his father, another underwritten role, Kabashi barely fares better.
At least the film’s drab look matches its consistently downbeat tone, with Germany-based, Italian-born cinematographer Matteo Cocco using a handheld, almost documentary-like style that suggests this is a ripped-from-the-headlines story (even if the headlines might date back to the '90s). The somewhat abrupt ending can’t be called a surprise, since the entire film’s edited in a generally slapdash manner.
Production companies: Niko Film, Produksioni Krusha, Skophe Film Studio, Eaux Vives Productions
Cast: Val Maloku, Astrit Kabashi, Adriana Matoshi, Enver Petrovci, Xhevedet Jashari, Alban Ukaj
Writer-director: Visar Morina
Producer: Nicole Gerhards
Co-producers: Visar Krusha, Tomi Salkovski, Xenia Maingot
Director of photography: Matteo Cocco
Production designer: Jutta Freyer
Costume designer: Genoveva Kylburg
Editor: Stefan Stabenow
Music: Benedikt Schiefer
Sales: Heretic Outreach
No rating, 104 minutes