– Mehdi Sahebi’s latest feature film depicts the difficult but hope-filled daily lives of a group of Afghan and Iranian refugees in Switzerland
Presented in a world premiere in the Locarno Film Festival’s Critics’ Week, as well as in competition for the Prix de Soleure at the 59th Solothurn Film Festival, Prisoners of Fate is the result of a decisive meeting between Mehdi Sahebi – who travelled from Iran to Switzerland when he himself was just twenty years old – and a group of refugees whom he met while rehearsing for a multicultural choir, assembled by tenor Christoph Homberger, and a visit to one of the many refugees in Switzerland whose status is contested. United by the same language and culture, and the many complexities of the migrant experience, the director and his protagonists slowly got to know each another, sharing the hopes and moments of darkness inherent to a challenging reality. The sensitivity and curiosity with which Mehdi Sahebi gets to know Sanam, who’s struggling to bring his six-year-old son to Switzerland, Mahmad, Ezra and Matin, who are soldiers who fled from an unspeakable kind of hell, and sixteen-year-old Omid, transform this film into a work of poetry.
With a precision and depth characteristic of his work, Mehdi Sahebi crafts a film going beyond “simple” observation of the difficulties encountered by those who are forced to leave their homelands, finding themselves in a wholly unfamiliar context which is fascinating and frightening in equal measure. Thanks to the years he spent with his protagonists, patiently observing their everyday lives, a light shines through in his movie, a spark which survives in spite of it all and which is fuelled by what we might describe as solidarity or, quite simply, human warmth. Beyond the shadows which cloud his protagonists’ past, the force which drives them forwards is the potential hope of finally leading a dignified life, alongside the human warmth which they share with one another and which they sometimes receive from this nation which seemed so hostile at first glance.
Mahmad’s scrupulously sculpted muscles and Ezat’s seeming bravado as he sets off for Italy clash with the need they feel to confide in a psychiatrist who is assigned to them and the impossibility of being separated from a reassuring cuddly toy. Grappling with a past which needs to be unpicked and a future yet to be constructed, Sahebi’s protagonists are accompanied by contradictions, fear and hope, together with strength and tenderness. They all oscillate between dreams (or nightmares) and reality, struggling to find their own identities. The aesthetically powerful scene, reminiscent of a music video, where the director films a group of youngsters as they’re falling asleep in their bunk beds in a migrant shelter, is particularly effective in this respect.
Mehdi Sahebi chooses not to turn his film into a treatise on migration policies in Switzerland; instead, he focuses on the power of friendship, on the small, everyday gestures which act as a balm for searingly deep wounds. None of these protagonists can influence the administrative decisions impacting their lives, but what they can do is keep each other company, keeping the ghosts of an often unspeakable past at bay, as best they can. Punctuated by expertly timed music and profoundly realistic dance scenes in which the film’s protagonists truly seem to transform, Prisoners of Fate opens a window onto a reality which is often ignored, either through fear or superficiality. Tragic yet bursting with humour, the film confronts us with destinies which could easily be our own, if we hadn’t been lucky enough to be born in a safe place.
(Translated from Italian)