Despite its anodyne title Philip Scheffner’s Europe, world-premiering at this year’s Berlinale, is one of the more unusual projects in the Forum section lineup. It refers not to the continent (though perhaps figuratively) but to the bus stop in the small French suburb of Chatellerault that the film’s 30-something protagonist Zohra Hamadi utilizes to get from her small flat, to work (at an NGO-run, second-hand-clothing warehouse), to various medical and physical therapy appointments, and back again. Having left her native Algeria to undergo a series of surgeries to correct a debilitating spinal condition, Zohra is now pain-free and able to walk upright for the very first time. Surrounded by a vast network of family and friends, all of whom live in the same housing block, she now only has to wait for her husband Hocine’s family reunification visa to come through. And then – voila! – her new and improved life can commence. Or not. Most likely not.
In the saddest of ironic twists, Zohra’s physical «healing» becomes the catalyst for the emotional trauma she now faces. With her residence permit renewal denied since she no longer needs treatment, she finds herself spending the summer holiday stranded all alone in Chatellerault, looking after empty apartments, feeding a turtle, making coffee for one. And stalling on the phone with Hocine, reluctant to let on just how uncertain their future has abruptly become. Oh, and this is only after she literally – and most definitely figuratively – disappears.
In the saddest of ironic twists, Zohra’s physical «healing» becomes the catalyst for the emotional trauma she now faces.
For soon after we get to know Zohra – and she becomes a bureaucratic nonentity – Scheffner ingeniously cuts her completely from the frame. A colleague at work makes small talk with a mute Zohra who remains frustratingly out of our line of sight. A sister gives instructions to an unseen and unheard Zohra just beyond an apartment front door. And when Zohra does finally return to screen as a physical presence, it seems everyone else around her has now gone. The barrier between human beings deemed «legal» and «illegal» is set firmly and cinematically in place.
And adding to all this topsy-turviness, I should probably mention Zohra Hamadi doesn’t actually exist. At least offscreen and outside of this «state-enforced fiction» film. Zohra is, in fact, played by Rhim Ibrir, who, like her imaginary counterpart, left Algeria to undergo several operations for severe scoliosis in France. And now that her treatment has ended has been rendered invisible by the state, her residence permit Kafkaesquely revoked.
Indeed, Scheffner began Europe as a documentary centered on Ibrir, who he first met while working on his previous doc Havarie (Berlinale Forum 2016). Only after Ibrir was denied the «right to be present and participate in a shared social space» did the director turn to what he termed «forced fiction» to tell her truth. Or as Ibrir herself has stated in the press notes, «And later, when the film is over, «Zohra» goes back to her life and that’s it. But here – she’s enacting all this, but it’s not an act for her. For her, what she’s playing is real. The film does not end. Even when she leaves the film, she’s still living what she played.» It’s the strange truth of life in nonexistence limbo that all who live in the shadows of Europe tragically share.