Friday 25 March 2022

The running man: "Europa"

Haider Rashid's
Europa is the migrant experience put over in the same hyper-immersive, XBox-adjacent manner as Sam Mendes's 1917: a kid running for his life over 72 minutes, presented as but a thin slice of what tens of thousands experience every day. (I'm tempted to say more than ever at the present moment, although the exodus out of Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion appears from this distance to be far better managed; Rashid's focus is on those who don't have the relative luxury of international visibility.) After four stark intertitles offering context, we're dropped with a thud on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, a hair's breadth away from a young Iraqi in a Mo Salah shirt (Adam Ali), who's about to find his fight-or-flight reflexes tested in a big way. The threats he faces are multidirectional: from the authorities who would police such movements, those criminal gangs afforded carte blanche to organise (and profit from) border crossings, and - increasingly - from so-called "migrant hunters", tooled-up ultra-nationalists who don't take too kindly to unfamiliar faces. The unrelenting pursuit that follows forms an attempt to walk a few miles - or scramble, really - in the tattered footwear of one who doesn't want to be here, and doesn't know whether he's going to get much further. I'm going to recommend Rashid's film, but that's not to say it isn't an occasionally jolting and discomfiting experience.

As with 1917, the impression is of a successfully sustained technical feat, though Europa is less showy than its predecessor, which was likely always conceived by its makers as year-end awards bait. Rashid isn't fussed about faking up unbroken takes; his cuts and elisions propel the film forward from uncertain day to less certain night, and from plodding woodland boredom to the next do-or-die interaction. This is neither an illustrated thesis nor homework (as the much-admired Flee felt like to this viewer), but a true motion picture that conveys its truths on the hoof. Rashid works especially closely with Ali, who has far less to say than George Mackay's dashing soldier boy in 1917, but nevertheless articulates a nimble, resourceful avatar, using his shirt's hem to tie up a flapping trainer, climbing a tree to evade one search party, repurposing a dead man's shoes (while giving his body as close as he can to a proper burial). We might still want to know more about him: where the mother he's heard murmuring about now is, how he got here, where he'd like to be going. Removing this lad of almost everything but his passport reframes him as a vaguely idealised Everymigrant. (That football shirt is to the protagonist what "Take on Me" is to the subject of Flee: a readily universalising element.) What we're dashing past is the detail of a more conventional endeavour like 2013's The Golden Dream, still the strongest recent film on the crossing of borders. Yet as an item of in-the-moment cinema - an extended setpiece, in effect - Europa is undeniably effective: you, too, will feel the panic rise and the body temp drop, as well as the spirit ebbing as our boy is backed into another, possibly deadly corner. (You, too, keep fingers and toes crossed that he'll pull through.) What if just one of the faces this traveller had encountered were friendly? Wouldn't that be enough in itself to change someone's world for the better?

Europa is now playing at London's ICA, and is available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube.

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