Stop-Over: Cannes Review

Escale Film Still - H 2013

Escale Film Still - H 2013

Well-intentioned debut tackles a serious, topical and complex issue with engaging immediacy, but could do with further trimming.

Kaveh Bakhtiari's feature-length debut, a Swiss-French co-production debuting in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, documents the plight of illegal Iranian immigrants in Athens.

The tough situation of illegal immigrants in present-day Europe gets up-close and very personal documentary treatment in Stop-Over (L'Escale), the earnestly heartfelt debut by Tehran-born Swiss director Kaveh Bakhtiari. A pressingly topical first-person dispatch from the unwelcoming streets of Athens, the Franco-Swiss co-production's subject-matter will attract festivals and TV channels specializing in human-rights themes. But as an evocation of stultifyingly frustrating stasis this Cannes Directors' Fortnight premiere succeeds perhaps a little too well, and may thus struggle to stand out from the pack in today's crowded non-fiction field.

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Opening titles inform us that Bakhtiari traveled to the Greek capital to film the experiences of his cousin Mohsen in the boarding-house he shares with other illegal migrants - and that Mohsen is now no longer alive. This information casts a grim shadow over all that follows, as we observe the hazardous but comradely existence of Mohsen and his friends under the roof provided by thirtyish Amir, himself a migrant aiming for a more welcoming destination elsewhere in Europe.

Greece's geographical position and extensive, island-fringed coastlines have long made it a natural stopping-point for people from the Middle East seeking better opportunities elsewhere, with consequences that have become a major domestic political concern in the country over the last few years. This wider picture isn't part of Bakhtiari's remit - instead, his reportage examines the human costs of the situation. Sequences in Amir's unofficial guest-house alternate with external footage in which Bakhtiari accompanies Mohsen and company on their forays into the city, where they're in constant fear of attracting official attention.

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Shooting with a small, hidden camera, Bakhtiari - whose voice is often heard but whose face is never  shown - is thus able to capture the everyday lives of these men as they wrestle with a painful dilemma: keep going, often with the assistance of expensive people-smugglers, or return to their turbulent homeland (where there is "no money, no work"). With his Swiss passport Bakhtiari can enjoy the perspective of privileged observer, but he's also drawn into the men's plight from time to time, as when Mohsen is arrested and subjected to what sounds very much like police brutality - his body shows the effects of what he describes as "electric truncheons."

Each of Amir's tenants is afforded sufficient screen-time to establish their individuality, giving humanity and depth to what viewers would normally know only as a statistic or a headline. But as each man (and one woman) moves on, it's Amir himself who becomes the most regular on-camera presence: engaging and charismatic, he's also the most articulate commentator on the dehumanizing effects of this kind of prolonged waiting.

The psychological results are, we see, often extreme: final stretches involve a hunger-strike designed to force the government into alleviating the Iranians' predicament, before the meager available details of Mohsen's off-screen demise back in Iran conclude proceedings on a sombre and sobering note.  

Unashamedly partisan in his editorial stance, Bakhtiari provides an illuminating but necessarily partial view of this complex and far-reaching subject, one whose effects are to be found far beyond Greece's borders.  At over 100 minutes, however, Stop-Over itself does tends towards the kind of repetitiveness and monotony which Mohsen and his buddies find so taxing, and perhaps a further trim could bring its strengths into sharper relief.

Venue:  Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production companies:  Louise Productions, Kaleo Films
Director/Screenwriter/Director of Photography:  Kaveh Bakhtiari
Producers: Elizabeth Garbar, Heinz Dill, Olivier Charvet, Sophie Germain
Editor:  Kaveh Bakhtiari, Charlotte Tourres, Sou Abadi
Music: Luc Rambo
Sales: Doc & Film, Paris
No MPAA rating, 105 minutes