Not to be confused with the half-dozen or so other films with the same (or similar) name, this brisk but effective drama offers a timely reminder of just how hard it is to cross borders, especially into countries that might not want you there. This Europa premiered last year, when the conversation about immigration focused mainly on those fleeing war-ravaged or even just unstable places in the Middle East or Africa. Such immigrants were far more likely to be met with hostility at Europe’s edges than the compassion the west is currently extending to refugees from Ukraine, so that sheer accident of the release schedule throws this film into a whole new light. Viewers can’t but fail to be aware of the discrepancy between how two different sets of people have been treated but hopefully the attention on those fleeing Russian aggression will help us all to have more understanding for people like Kamal (Adam Ali) the Iraqi protagonist of this story, who is first met trying to cross the border between Turkey and Bulgaria on a moonlit night along with several others from different countries.
An opening block of contextualising prose lays out the fact that the corrupt guides that migrants pay for help are actually in cahoots with police and civilian militias who violently hunt down border-crossers. Consequently, the film plays almost like some horrible dystopian-themed first-person adventure game with a constricted field of vision (not unlike Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul), as the camera hovers next to the panicked, perpetually-in-motion Kamal. The camera even follows him as he scrambles up a tree to hide and sees another man killed in cold blood right below him.
Later, in a quite extraordinary scene shown intentionally without subtitles, an injured Kamal manages to flag down a passing motorist (Svetlana Yancheva) and persuades her to give him a lift to the hospital. The camera flicks back and forth between their faces as she listens to a radio broadcast in Bulgarian and suddenly becomes repulsed and angry with Kamal, seemingly afraid of what she has just heard, and throws him out of the car. These extraordinary visuals are enhanced by beautifully composed and balanced sound design, that mixes human noises off, the sound of birds (listen for the woodpecker) and the natural world, constantly underscored by Kamal’s strained breathing.
While writer-director Haider Rashid’s film-making is bravura stuff indeed, as a piece of storytelling it comes up a little short. We hardly know anything about the protagonist apart from the fact that he’s Iraqi, a fast runner and fond of songs with lyrics about mother love, and the ambiguous ending feels a bit flat. Nevertheless this is an intense and empathic work that deserves to be seen.