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Swiss director Markus Imhoof (More Than Honey) tries to connect a personal, immediate post-war story from his youth with the sprawling, chaotic and — in this film, at least — largely faceless refugee crisis around the Mediterranean in the documentary Eldorado. Though clearly well-intentioned, Imhoof’s two halves never amplify each other, as one is the specific story of a personal connection and the other a much larger and more generically sketched overview of one of the world’s most pressing contemporary humanitarian crises. Especially compared to a non-fiction feature like Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, which won the top prize in Berlin in 2016, the lack of relatable characters and more intimate details becomes glaringly obvious, while the director also doesn’t manage to step back enough and put the ongoing disaster into a much larger perspective in the way someone like Ai Weiwei managed to do in his poetic cri de coeur Human Flow. Beyond Switzerland and a few festival appearances, this Berlinale Out of Competition title will be largely relegated to home-format viewings.
Imhoof, born in 1941 in German-speaking Winterthur, near Zurich, recalls how, at the end of World War II, his family took in the 8-year-old Giovanna, a malnourished Italian girl, as part of a children transport program organized by the Red Cross, which allowed them to get better in the neutral country for between three and six months. Giovanna would then be sent back again to Italy, at the insistence of the authorities, but Imhoof and Giovanna’s families stayed in touch, even after the death of Giovanna at age 13 in Italy and a second attempt to bring her to Switzerland permanently.
The story of Giovanna and little Markus is told through old photos, drawings and a voiceover in which Robert Hunger-Buehler takes on the role of Markus and Caterina Genta is burdened with the role of Giovanna. The young girl speaks in a mix of Italian and German with a heavy Italian accent and cutesy, easy-to-understand Italian words like “mamma,” turning her into a clichéd, exotic foreigner. (The only excuse Imhoof has for this is that she’s seen from the perspective of his much younger self.)
Their personal history, which finally contains more logistical than emotional details, is intercut with Imhoof’s investigation of the current refugee crisis. “It is because of you that I’m making this trip,” the director — via Hunger-Buehler’s voiceover — explains to Giovanna. But that kind of personal connection never materializes in the contemporary material, as Imhoof films what happens on an Italian naval vessel tasked with taking in refugees found at sea. There are some parallels between how the refugees and Giovanna were treated by foreign governments, but what’s lacking is any kind of empathy for any one of them, as the camera pans past their hopeless faces but there seems to be no time nor interest to get to know any one of them individually.
Besides filming a small part of the Italian government’s Operation Mare Nostrum at sea, Imhoof also filmed on land. He tries to visit a refugee camp in Southern Italy, where a Nigerian man who’s not even staying there madly denounces what’s going on inside while one of the camp workers hopelessly looks on. He also smuggles a camera into a “ghetto” where illegal foreign workers are being housed by the mafia, which takes half of their already meager daily pay as tomato pickers for putting them up in slum-like conditions and providing them with work. Shockingly, the women in the camp are considered “too weak” to work in the fields, so they are all forced into prostitution.
The situation of the refugees is clearly dire, and the help that’s being provided is often clearly inadequate. Indeed, in one of the film’s more surreal moments, a man announces over a PA system of a navy vessel that they would like to apologize to the people they just took in for the conditions of the restrooms. But Imhoof struggles to turn his large catalog of modern ills into compelling cinematic material that can be connected to his own personal story. Though there are a few on-camera interviews in especially the film’s second half, they tend to be more educational than really personal, foregoing empathy for the sake of exposition and explanations about the scope and details of the crisis.
In the end, Eldorado is half a personal memory piece and half an impersonal overview of a problem that Imhoof can do very little about, even at a local Swiss level, which is where the director goes for its third act. Perhaps it was his intention to show how the authorities try to handle the crisis in the most dispassionate way possible, but in order to really get a sense of that, it would help to be able to get to know at least one of the people on whose life and future this will have such a large impact. The filmmaker comes closest when, in a handful of short scenes, he follows the character of Rahel, a woman from Africa who works at an old people’s home in Switzerland whose application for Swiss residency is finally denied. But the film doesn’t take the time to develop her into a character who could parallel and contrast Giovanna, who lived seven decades earlier, to suggest how little has changed.
Production companies: Zero One, Thelma Film, Ormenis Film, SRF SRG SSR, Bayerischer Rundfunk
Narrators: Caterina Genta, Robert Hunger-Buehler
Writer-director: Markus Imhoof
Producers: Thomas Kufus, Pierre-Alain Meier, Markus Imhoof
Director of photography: Peter Indergrand
Editor: Beatrice Babin
Music: Peter Scherer
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Sales: Films Boutique
In German, Italian, French, English
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