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The tragedy of the immigrant is that time is never on their side—either it is running out, demanding escape, or it is moving too slowly, the prospect of a future disappearing ever-farther into the horizon. The cinema that traces the condition of displacement also tends along these two axes. Some films mimic the dire tenor of news with images of intrepid immigrants racing against the clock—scrambling to board planes, crossing choppy waters on precarious boats, trudging through unforgiving deserts—while other movies dwell in the aftermath of these odysseys, when those same frantic journeyers often find themselves in stifling limbo, waiting for paperwork, for jobs, for messages from loved ones, for a sense of home. This latter category is by no means novel; films from Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT (1917) to Med Hondo’s SOLEIL O (1967) to Christian Petzold’s TRANSIT (2018) have offered different riffs on the temporal suspension of the newly arrived immigrant. But the particular temporal ironies of modern-day immigration—where technologies of rapid communication and circulation coexist with systems of delay, detention and destitution—have spawned a new wave of bold, empathetic experiments in film form.

"One might call these films examples of 'distended cinema,' where time stretches out of sync with any one world in order to beget a third instead."

Many such temporally inventive works have screened recently at the Berlinale Forum: Phillip Scheffner’s EUROPE (2022) turned to docufiction to render the precarious present of the immigrant as a form of invisibility, while Susana Nobre’s JACK’S RIDE (2021) employed the same hybrid mode to explore how memories of another place and time can structure the here and now; in CETTE MAISON (2022), Miryam Charles staged a kind of séance between generations of her migrant family to contemplate futures that never came to pass. In this year’s Forum lineup, three films explore how the disjunctive time experienced by immigrants can open up a new space—a heterotopia, if you will—that, though estranging, also holds radical potential for reimagining our bordered realities. The scholar Hamid Naficy describes works by exiled or diasporic filmmakers as “accented cinema,” or cinema that dwells simultaneously in two worlds. One might call these films examples of “distended cinema,” where time stretches out of sync with any one world in order to beget a third instead.

An oppressive stillness radiates from the screen right from the start in CONCRETE VALLEY, Antoine Bourges’s drama about a family of Syrian immigrants in Toronto. The film opens with shots of a cool, dark forest; the images are still as paintings, though the soundtrack thrums with the noises of nature—water, wind, rustling leaves—in action. That sense of stasis amid the bustle of life persists as the movie proceeds, seeping through each of its fixed, tableau-like shots, and pooling into a kind of existential metaphor. The protagonists, Rashid (Hussam Douhna) and Farah (Amani Ibrahim), live in Thorncliffe Park, a neighborhood marked by nondescript high rises abutting a lush jungle. Populated primarily by recent immigrants, the area is colloquially known as “Arrival City,” though the irony is that Rashid and Farah (and likely many of their neighbors, played by actual residents of Thorncliffe Park) arrived five years ago. The question that hangs like thick fog over their lives is when they’ll stop arriving—when they might move out, move ahead.

There’s a malaise to the film, a languor emphasized by Bourges’ anti-dramatic style and the performers’ understated realism, that belies the substance of Rashid and Farah’s actual daily lives. It’s not that they have nothing to do—Rashid tends to their son, Ammar, attends an English class and doles out medical advice to anyone who will listen, trying desperately to reclaim his former career as a homeopathic doctor and the purpose it afforded him. Once an actor, Farah now works long shifts at a department store and goes to local community meetings in the hopes of making connections and finding a better job.

"Arriving is one thing; living is entirely another."

Both of them hustle relentlessly, but their circumstances change little. Bourges never explicitly spells out the bureaucratic and social constraints that hold them in their hamster wheel, though language barriers, cultural chasms and discrepancies in professional requirements are hinted at or play out in the background. Instead, the film focuses on the day-to-day obstacles that trickle down from these larger difficulties: the lack of hot water in their poorly managed building, the draining emotional labor of Farah’s retail job, the stagnation of the couple’s marriage. Arriving is one thing; living is entirely another.

Rashid and Farah are alienated, but they’re never alone. One of CONCRETE VALLEY’s casually profound gestures is its detailing of the insular world of immigrants in Toronto, who, like ghettoized people all over the world, form a patchwork universe of their own. White Canadians are rarely seen in this film (even Rashid’s English teacher is only heard off-screen). Almost everyone the protagonists interact with is a fellow immigrant, trying to ply their trade and find some semblance of community. A janitor mentions that he was an electrician “back home” and can help fix Rashid’s water heater. Rashid strikes up a friendship with a disabled neighbor from Africa who sells homemade cakes in the building. Farah joins a residents’ volunteer group made up of people of all stripes, their diverse backgrounds reflected in minor details: accents, clothes, parenting styles. They are all connected less by cultural similarities—the immigrant condition is never portrayed as monolithic here—and more by their shared difference, their common out-of-syncness, as they try to put down roots in the concrete of Thorncliffe Park.

In LLAMADAS DESDE MOSCÚ (Calls from Moscow), a similarly collaged web of community blossoms within the sterile insides of a prefabricated building in the Russian capital. The documentary is an unusual slice of the immigration narrative: where films exploring the subject mostly fixate on immigrants who move from the Global South to Western countries, framing their trajectories as escapes from poverty or repression to (imagined) prosperity and freedom, Alejandro Luis Yero’s film follows four queer Cuban immigrants who left the economic and political precarity of their home to come to Russia, where war looms on the horizon and homophobic laws pose a constant threat to their safety. Many, we learn, didn’t intend for Moscow to be their final stop; they were on their way to other European countries but were stalled by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. But for some, even their paltry, perilous lives and hard-labor jobs in Moscow afford them more financial mobility than they had in Cuba. When the director asks one of his protagonists in voiceover, “Where is home?”, he replies, “It is to wait, Ale.” He is buying time, trying to evade the question, but he inadvertently provides the answer. Home, for him, is waiting—for the next paycheck, the next phone call, the next job.

Much of LLAMADAS DESDE MOSCÚ takes place inside empty, white-walled rooms, capturing the characters in isolation as they speak on the phone, film videos or scroll social media. The audio from these conversations and recordings, which take place almost entirely in Spanish, forms a strange, “other” sonic world within the film’s visual landscape of anonymous rental apartments and Moscow’s snow-covered streets. One character works remotely for a company named “El Patron,” selling weight loss and virility treatments to customers in South America over the phone; others watch Cuban influencers or chat with friends and family from home. It’s as if corporeal borders cease to matter within these flats, and professional and personal relations are reinscribed across geographic distances. Yet one phone conversation, in which a man describes being passed back and forth over the Serbia-Macedonia border in a police van while trying to cross to the EU, underlines the hypocrisies ofthis seemingly globalized world: capital may flow freely across borders, but people are still bounded by states.

"Capital may flow freely across borders, but people are still bounded by states."

The transgression of borders is a kind of recontouring of the world—a traversal not just of distance, but also of time, of the rivulets of history. As LLAMADAS DESDE MOSCÚ cuts in and out of conversations about the political situation in Cuba and the war in Ukraine, a commentator is heard discussing Cuba’s stance on Russia’s offensive and tracing it to the country’s dependence on the superpower in the wake of US sanctions. His words offer a political framework for one of the characters’ personal struggle to define his own, troubled thoughts on the war, his decision to stay and work in Moscow while bloodshed unfolds across the border, and his limited ability to engage politically in a state that is hostile to him. Individual stories of immigration and aspiration emerge through these conversations as local ripples of global histories, more implicating a failed system than the moral choices of those trying to survive within it.

ÎNTRE REVOLUȚII (Between Revolutions) contrives a similar wide-angle view of history but with a more hopeful eye, imagining the kinds of solidarities (and not just complicities) that immigration can make possible. Vlad Petri’s speculative film essay adapts letters from the archive of the Romanian Secret Police and the poems of Nina Cassian and Forough Farrokhzad to fashion an epistolary relationship between two women, one Iranian and one Romanian, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Petri crafts a backstory in which Zahra and Maria meet at university in Bucharest, before Zahra returns to Iran to join the uprising against the Shah. They continue to communicate in the ensuing years via intimate letters that are read in voiceover over a stream of archival footage depicting scenes from the Iranian Revolution and the Ceaușescu years in Romania.

The film zigzags across these two narratives, inviting us to re-envision the siloed ways in which we think of nations and their trajectories. The upheavals in both Iran and Romania were shaped unmistakably by the Cold War, and if the political and ideological specifics of the two regimes differed, their effects on the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens shared many parallels. Zahra and Maria both bemoan a life robbed of civil freedoms, where independence and fulfillment feels out of reach, particularly for women; they also lament the surge of hope that revolutions foment and then often allow to dissipate. A hint of repressed desire weaves through their letters, mingling romantic and political longing. As home starts to feel foreign, and a once-promised future flickers out of view, the women return nostalgically to their memories together. They cling to a friendship that allows them to forge a tale outside of the national narratives they’re swept up within, to remember that the world stretches far beyond their limits.

"Each filmic cut redraws the map of our world, reminding us that a borderless future already exists within our present."

In his poem “In Search of Evanescence,” the Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali recounts encountering an exit to a place named “Calcutta” while driving through Ohio in the United States. He follows the sign, conjuring the sights and sounds of the East Indian city, tracing its rumbling trains and the Howrah bridge and the Ganges river over the geography of the American Midwest like a ghostly map. “The temptation to write a poem/led me past the exit/so I could say/India always exists/off the turnpikes/of America,” he writes. It takes just a familiar word, a sound, to collapse space; Cuba can appear in snowy Moscow, Syria in Toronto and Iran in Romania. As time dilates for the characters of CONCRETE VALLEY, LLAMADAS DESDE MOSCÚ, and ÎNTRE REVOLUȚII, distances dissolve and histories collide, each filmic cut redraws the map of our world, reminding us that a borderless future already exists within our present—all we need to do is drive past the exit and see what lies beyond.

Devika Girish is Co-Deputy Editor at Film Comment and programmes the Talks section of the New York Film Festival. Her writing also appears in The New York Times, Reverse Shot, The New York Review of Books, Criterion, Sight & Sound, The Village Voice, and other publications.


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