My friend Paola had two tickets to attend the Raindance opening gala at the Vue in Leicester Square. I'm both grateful and thankful she invited me along.
Woefully underdressed I wormed my way through London's glittering West End (as Titbits would've had it in 1975), took my complementary flute of warm fizz, and had a look at what was in my goodie bag. Popcorn, an almond bar, flavoured water (mint & cucumber), 'smellies', a Little Barrie CD, and a DVD of the film Honeymoon. Quite a haul.
Raindance began in the early nineties and is now a well respected festival of film. Enough so that they'd hired out Cafe de Paris for the post-film soiree. The festival gave UK debuts to Pulp Fiction and Memento and also provided What's Eating Gilbert Grape with its world premiere. Tough acts to follow, perhaps?
Definitely. But, like a rock band following up a hit album with an intimate personal piece, the organisers opted to open the festival with Manu Riche's ensemble piece about a Brussels immigration centre Problemski Hotel.
As topical as you could wish for but unlikely to interest the multiplex crowd. Which is a pity because it's great. There's a dark comedic vein that runs through the film, abated when absolutely necessary, yet a warmth too. Humanity you'd call it.
Humanity, in my eyes, doesn't simply consist of looking after your own, those that look like you, or those you deem worthy of support. It extends to caring about those you may strongly disagree with and trying to find common ground, or at least some kind of acceptance, with them. Riche, and his team, seem to come from the same place.
The people who make up this drama find themselves in Belgium for a number of reasons. Escaping danger, economic, a combination of both, or, in some cases, unclear. Moral judgements are put aside and the story left to tell itself. All the various strands are refracted through the character of Bipul (a tour de force from Tarek Hallaby), a man who can't, or chooses not to, remember where he's from originally but uses his multilingual skills, and obvious education, to assist the others in their often fraught dealings with Belgian authority.
Initially a distant figure Bipul enters into a relationship, of sorts, with the gamine Kazakh Lidia (Evegenia Brendes) whose urchin charm and utter, stop at nothing, determination make uneasy bedfellows. She dreams of a life in Chipping Sodbury but has no idea where it actually is.
Her friend Martina (Lydia Indjova) has fled a vicious gang in Omsk and Lidia's idea for them to sneak in to the UK in a shipping container during the Xmas break when all the guards are on holiday is fatally flawed. It's a sign of the desperation that underpins these lives. Mostly it hangs in the background. A grey crowd always ready to break open and rain piss down on a dream.
Nigerian Olugbenga (Gorges Ocloo) and gym fanatic Igor (gangly, taciturn Zlatan Ibrahimovic lookalike Kamil Alisultanov) demonstrate this the clearest. Olugbenga joyously cycles the city as Igor pumps iron and learns French in anticipation of joining the Foreign Legion. Both their fates are dependent on the contents of a small envelope delivered with faceless bureaucracy. Bipul, of course, is there to translate.
Even with a romance of sorts burgeoning Bipul remains mostly dispassionate. Give or take some frankly rotten poetry (one of the film's few misfires). His friend Mahsun (Gokhan Girginol) does the emotion - and the comedy. Mahsun is desperate for a Belgian wife but has nothing but enthusiasm and his friendly nature going for him. A night in a dreadful looking cocktail bar ends, predictably, disastrously.
Back in the immigration centre Shaukat (Ilyas Mettioui) cheats at chess, keeps his wife Hafeeza (Rema Jabr) in servitude and, it is strongly suggested, knocks her about a bit too. The film hints at a gradual reconciling of conflicting beliefs, understandably embraced by Hafeeza more urgently than Shaukat, and I think it's a brave piece of film making not to shy away from this aspect of some Islamic cultures.
In fact it's a brave film throughout. It's refreshing to see the immigrants in the foreground while the staff play supplementary roles. Equally admirably those same staff are not portrayed as monsters or jobsworths but well intentioned, hard working people struggling to find a balance between their ideals and their lived reality.
Balance between hope and hopelessness could be said to be the underlying theme of this film. There are some horrifically bleak scenarios, mostly played out behind doors thankfully closed to us, but there are also scenes that are testament to the sheer power of human resilience.
Problemski Hotel may not be a masterpiece, and it's unlikely to show up at your local Odeon, but it's an important and sensitive look at a subject that is, tragically, as topical today as it's ever been. It's a bloody good film too. If I was left with just one message it'd be that those of us who've never known such times should be very, very careful to pass judgement on those who have.