Dir: Nino Jacusso. Switzerland. 2001. 90 mins.
The outstanding feature of this well-meaning but utterly predictable melodrama about a Kurdish family seeking political asylum is the zesty, touching and thoroughly convincing performances from a cast of mainly non-professionals playing heightened versions of themselves (a strategy which the film's credits pretentiously describe as "real acting"). Duzgun Ayhan, a real-life Kurdish refugee, was named Best Actor in San Sebastian for his portrayal of the family's withdrawn and traumatised father, while Escape To Paradise itself won a special mention from the international critics' (FIPRESCI) jury; its spotless liberal credentials may usher it to further awards success. European art houses and specialist TV channels would seem the film's best bet, and it should be a regular guest at human rights festivals and similar events
The story follows the rollercoaster fortunes of a family which has fled to Switzerland after the father, Sehmuz, has been imprisoned and tortured by the Turkish authorities for billposting in support of Kurdish rights. Accompanying him are his wife, Delal (Fidan Firat) and their three children. While they await questioning and approval of their petition, they are temporary lodged in an asylum centre in Basle.
Although conditions are spartan, their fellow-refugees, a colourful assortment of individuals from Africa, Eastern European, Asia and South America, are a spirited lot. Meeting daily in the communal kitchens, they swap battle stories and mock each other's national cuisines in lively scenes which give the otherwise earnest film a welcome injection of comedy.
Also at the centre is Aziz (Nurettin Yildiz), a likeable rogue who, although trying to pass off his appendix scar as proof of torture, is clearly an economic refugee rather than a political one. Pointing out that nine out of 10 applications for asylum are rejected, however genuine, Aziz urges Sehmuz to pawn the family jewels and seek the services of a "story-seller" (Walo Luond), a former Swiss state official who knows how to work the system and supplies candidates with fake documents and a phoney biography which will be, he claims, more effective than the real thing. But, anxious and confused, Sehmuz has trouble memorising his new story.
The pursuit of the Swiss dream is a recurring theme of this national cinema: it was treated notably in the Oscar-winning Journey of Hope (1990) which traced a Turkish family's ill-fated trip to the promised land, and in The Swissmaker, a 1977 comedy about the vetting of would-be immigrants, which also starred Luond. Escape To Paradise contains a couple of minor unexpected twists, but otherwise has little new to add to the genre, and makes little effort to suggest the more complex political perspective behind the family's flight. It presents an idealised view of Switzerland as a land of milk and honey, and an extremely negative one of human rights abuses in Turkey.
Director Nino Jacusso, himself an immigrant to Switzerland from Southern Italy, keeps the action moving along with fluid, CinemaScope images which nicely capture the animated comings and going at the refugee centre (although the DV to 35mm transfer is on the dark side). A music track of Kurdish folk music is an attractive aural counterpoint to the numerous descriptive scenes.
Prod co: Insert Film
Int'l Sales: Filmcooperative Zurich
Prod: Ivo Kummer
Scr: Jacusso, Mona de la Rey
Cinematography: Daniel Leippert
Music: Pedro Haldemann, Ben Jeger
Main cast: Duzgun Ayhan, Fidan Firat, Walo Luond, Nuerettin Yildiz.