The Stranger’s Case

VERDICT: Confronting the world refugee crisis head-on in highly dramatic scenes that refuse to let go, Brandt Andersen’s etched-with-an-axe ‘The Strangers’ Case’ is a human disaster movie that passionately describes a chain reaction of real-life horror.

A woman doctor in Aleppo, Syria, finds herself and her teenage daughter on the run after their home is bombed and their family destroyed. A soldier loyal to nationalist forces turns away from the violence and cruelty of his officers and has nowhere to go. A family living in a refugee camp makes a bid to reach Europe on a raft. And the cynical human trafficker who is exploiting them wants to run away to Chicago with his son.

Opening with a few eloquent lines of Shakespeare about refugees who, fleeing hideous violence, seek shelter in a foreign nation, The Strangers’ Case stakes its claim to the highest moral outrage in the current worldwide and, apparently, age-old humanitarian crisis. War leads not only to death but to displacement and millions of desperate souls on the move in search of safety and shelter, and producer-turned-director Brandt Andersen’s aim in his first feature film is to make sure no viewer turns away indifferently from the screen, like they have grown to ignore the TV news.

Winner of the Amnesty International Film Prize in Berlin, where it premiered as a Special Gala, the film has had a slow festival life since its bow, though its appearance in the Mediterrane Film Festival in Malta, the site of almost daily dramas involving immigrants in rickety boats drowning, is a most appropriate venue. Still, the way the film is structured, shot and acted for maximum drama and emotional effect suggests this is a work capable of reaching a much larger and more varied audience. Distributors take note.

Andersen, an artist and activist who based his screenplay on his short film Refugee, turns up the volume from the very first scene and never really bothers to turn it down again. The result is an emotionally draining experience that puts aside the niceties of motivation and nuanced feelings in favor of raw skin and open veins. And it certainly holds the attention.

The film is divided into chapters. “The Doctor” is about Amira, played with heroic immersive realism by Palestinian actress Yasmine Al Massri. She is a radiologist but in the current emergency, as bombs rain down on her hospital, she is one of two surgeons working non-stop in a dusty operating room. When the bullying leader of a band of nationalist soldiers, Mustafa (Yahya Mahayni), realizes she is also treating “the enemy” they are fighting and points his rifle at a bleeding youth, she bravely stares him down. It’s not the most subtle school of filmmaking, but the tension is visceral and the good guys and bad guys clearly defined.

But not so fast: Mustafa has a father who he deems to be a “traitor” because he won’t fight, but secretly he loves the stubborn old man. We watch the battle-hardened soldier melt almost to tears when his father tells him in disgust, “My son is dead.”  This is the chapter entitled “The Soldier”, a fast-moving horror during which a black-clad intelligence officer appears like death itself and orders his men to drag men, women and children out of their homes and summarily execute them as “terrorists”. This story cunningly flows into a high-tension attempt to escape across the border by Amira and her daughter, hidden in the trunk of a car driven by a daring young Captain (Palestinian star Saleh Bakri).

Each chapter ends in a classical cliffhanger where lives lie in the balance. Who lives and who dies is postponed till later, as the characters meet and mingle in a risky dance with death. It is a highly effective narrative device that holds the audience in an iron grip, and Andersen shows over and over again that he knows how to use it.

Part of the secret is that the whole story is heading like a raging torrent to the same place: a rendezvous aboard an overcrowded raft on the Mediterranean, where the surviving characters attempt a desperate flight to Greece. A chapter called “The Smuggler” introduces the big, muscular, ruthless human trafficker Marwan, a schizophrenic role that Omar Sy plays to perfection, balanced between good and evil, between love for his sick son and his greed for money. There is nothing here that hasn’t been dramatized before with more depth and meaning, like the random, last-minute choice of a passenger who is forced, like the young hero of the Italian Oscar-nominated Io, Capitano, to steer the boat across a raging sea.

The surprise arrives when the final character is introduced: the captain of a Greek Coast Guard rescue vessel, whose dedication to his job and to saving the lives of strangers is so unexpected that it offers a wholly new perspective on the long series of dramas that have brought the characters together.

Director, screenplay: Brandt Andersen
Cast: Yasmine Al Massri, Yahya Mahayni, Omar Sy, Ziad Bakri, Constantine Markoulakis, Jason Beghe, Massa Daoud, Carlos Chahine, Ayman Samman, Thanos Tokakis, Fares Helou, Jay Abdo, Mahmoud Bakri, Ward Helou, Saleh Bakri, Sara El Debuch, Angeliki Papoulia
Producers: Brandt Andersen, Ossama Bawardi, Ryan Busse, Charlie Endean
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela

Editing: Jeff Seibeneck
Production design: Julie Berghoff
Casting: Mona Shehabi
Music: Nick Chuba
Production companies: Philistine Films (Jordan)
World Sales: Mister Smith Entertainment (London)
Venue: Mediterrane Film Festival (Competition)
In Arabic, English, Greek
103 minutes

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