The cultural identity of the displaced

    IDENTITY / In two Nordisk Panorama-screened films, a growing number of second-generation immigrants express how they do not feel truly included in their European birth countries.

    One focus of this year’s selection at Nordisk Panorama was the theme of cultural identity of those who feel misplaced. A growing number of second-generation immigrants express that they do not feel to be truly included in the culture of their European birth country. In both Moosa Lane – the winner of this year’s prize in the category of New Nordic Voice – and No Place Like Home, the main character returns to the country of her ancestors in search of her roots, only to discover that being displaced is a feeling she can never escape. In these debut films, the directors attempt to expose how lonely it feels to be caught between two cultures. Questions are raised. What does the term «home country» really mean? When strangers shout at you to «go back home”, where should you go when you know no other country than the one you were born in?

    Moosa Lane Anita Mathal Hopland,
    Moosa Lane, a film by Anita Mathal Hopland,

    Moosa Lane

    For the past 15 years, Anita Hopland video-documented her frequent visits to her family in the Moosa Lane neighbourhood of Karachi, Pakistan. Almost all her footage is taken inside her family’s house, where the 25-member household lives. The warmth and inclusiveness of her Pakistani family bring us uniquely close to their everyday lives. By comparison, the few scenes from Hopland’s life in Copenhagen show us a more reserved Scandinavian way of life. «I change my world frequently. From the safe streets at Copenhagen to Moosa Lane. To a place in-between that became my home.» She travels between the two worlds, searching for a bridge that can merge the two cultures.

    Anita’s comments are expressed through what she chooses to capture with her camera. She takes a pan shot of a crowd of Danish juveniles in a park. Capturing them only from their necks down, we see only their bodies and how they hold on to their beers. «We’ve always taken our freedom for granted», she says. By comparison, her cousins have their lives all planned out and are burdened with responsibilities from an early age.

    The editing done by Signe R. Kaufmann stays in a slow tempo that feels daring, considering how the attention span of today’s audience gets shorter. The film is built up slowly through a symbolic narrative, each section focusing on the individual lifelines of Hopland’s cousins in Pakistan.

    In these debut films, the directors attempt to expose how lonely it feels to be caught between two cultures.

    An allegory between a slaughter scene and a wedding

    Back in Mossa Lane, the director includes a long film sequence of a rather anxious cow resting on the family’s property. The shots of the details of the cow’s face, the apprehensiveness reflected in her eyes, and her patient demeanour is admirable and brings us closer to this animal. Then the cow is led outside; her front legs are tied before she is forced to kneel. Why this unnecessary agony, one might wonder, before the butcher calmly cuts her throat. The cow is meticulously parted, the meat packaged into see-through plastic bags and children run off distributing the meat packages to the poor. This scene feels too detailed, long and somewhat out of context at first. I wonder what the author is trying to underline. It only becomes apparent later in the film that we watched this detailed slaughter scene as an allegory of the portrait of her dear cousin, Saima.

    We watch this joyous girl become a self-assured woman, the first in the family to attend university. She is brilliant, funny and dazzlingly beautiful. A sparkling laughter follows every scene she is in. Then she is told that in five years’ time, she will get married away to a man she has never met. We would not have noticed the change in her had we not observed long passages from her carefree childhood earlier. The closer we get to the wedding day, the more apprehensive and uptight she becomes. Having witnessed the slaughter scene beforehand, one cannot help but draw parallels; there is a similar feeling of desperation in the victim. Both scenes are shoot with similar meticulousness and patience. On her wedding day, Saima is painted as a porcelain doll, filled with breathless fear. She has still not seen the man to whom she has been promised. The portrait of her brother, Zayn, is yet another heart-wrenching story. And yet these stories are happening in a home pulsating with dance, warmth and goodness.

    Anita’s spare voice-over is philosophic and non-judgemental. One might feel it is missing a personal warmth in her voice. However, this is compensated by the music composed by the Norwegian jazz musician Kristoffer Lo. The score creates not only a dramaturgical line but also gives an emotional commentary as if symbolising each «tragic» fate of Anita’s cousins. Using predominantly brass instruments combined with choral music, it sounds like the tones call out for mercy. In a family where the bonds are so close and loving, one can wonder why they can not break out of traditions that put such heavy pressure on their children.

    No Place Like Home Emilie K. Beck
    No Place Like Home, a film by Emilie K. Beck

    No Place Like Home

    By comparison, No Place Like Home, a debut by Emilie Beck, is a character-driven documentary that will bring tears even to those who never cry at the cinemas. Like most protagonists of films produced by Indie Film, the main characters bravely deal with their traumas by searching for the truth of their story. Once again, the main character is a beautiful and brave young woman going on a heart-aching mission to find her original home.

    Although growing up in a seemingly well-balanced and traditional family in west Norway, Priyangika never felt she belonged. She was adopted from Sir Lanka to Norway at seven weeks. Already at the age of three, she pulled out her Sri Lanka adoption papers and studied them in the hope of finding her origins. «I missed my biological family from the moment I can remember,” she says as she goes on a plight to uncover the circumstances of her adoption.

    The question remains whether her longing for her original home stems from a deep genetic memory or whether she was just never treated as an equal among Norwegian peers when growing up. At school, she was ruthlessly bullied without any teacher intervening. Other pupils paid tickets to watch her being tormented by having her head thrust down the toilet repeatedly. Perhaps her childhood could have been less agonising if a teacher or a headmaster had brought some awareness about racism at school.

    At the age of seven, she started to search for her biological mother, and at the age of twelve, she finally tracked her down. She thought finding her mother would finally make her feel complete, but it didn’t turn out that way. Hoping to run into the arms of the mother that she really belongs to, she found a woman who was deeply traumatised and needed serious care. Her relationship with Priyangika becomes difficult as their roles are reversed, and her biological mother expects to be taken care of by her own daughter. Regardless, it does not stop Priyangika in her mission to uncover the circumstances of why she was taken away from her biological mother in the first place. Through her journey, she discovers that a series of international adoptions made to Norway was probably illegal. This hints at the recent uncovering of human trafficking, selling children for high-profit international adoptions.

    No Place Like Home could make a stronger political point, but Beck chooses to follow the protagonist’s personal journey, who carries the whole film by giving everything she has. At one point, the director allows Priyangika to express her wrath in one sentence; «It is absurd to move a child from one continent to another and give them a Norwegian name.» However, she never goes into the potential explosive debate on whether international adoption is an ethically correct thing to practice.

    Since the 1970s, we have been presented with the idea that we are helping children escape poverty when we bring them to the West and provide them with a materialistically better way of life. This concept was embedded from the start with colonialists and their close partners, the missionaries. There has not been a debate yet on whether international adoption, in fact, is robbing the child of their cultural heritage.

    Since the 1970s, we have been presented with the idea that we are helping children escape poverty when we bring them to the West and provide them with a materialistically better way of life.

    For the last decade, international adoption has reduced by 70%, mainly since the countries that have exported the most children have banned international adoptions. Also, there has been a heavy crackdown on highly profitable child-trafficking organisations. In addition, better economic conditions in China and Russia have also helped reduce the number of children being adopted out of the country.

    Personally, I feel that children should not be taken away from their original country. If we wish to help them, we should be able to help them within their own culture. The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child specifically points out that «a child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background» should always be respected in case of adoption. On the other hand, ending foreign adoptions could mean that more children will grow up in institutions without any parental contact.

    Perhaps the complexity of the issue is why Beck chooses to avoid the issues in No Place Like Home and rather focuses on the personal journey and family reunion. It is a strong story, and the audience must make their own concussions. Interestingly enough, Priyangika feels most happy when she can stay in her mother’s poor neighbourhood. «This is where I belong», she says, while she has another life in Norway with a Norwegian husband and children. But, like so many others, she is caught in a discontent state where she belongs to a space of in-between.

    Margareta Hruza
    Margareta Hruza
    Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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