Omar Sy stars in this multi-stranded refugee drama which links five families across four countries 

The Strangers' Case

Source: Berlinale

‘The Strangers’ Case’

Dir/scr: Brandt Andersen. Jordan. 2024. 103mins

The crescendo of human suffering that is the refugee crisis is explored in this well-intentioned, serious-minded but somewhat overwrought multi-stranded drama from producer-turned-director Brandt Anderson. The film starts and ends with Amira (Yasmine Al Massri), a Syrian doctor who fled Aleppo and has finally found sanctuary in Chicago. But, in a series of inter-linked chapters which follow five families in four countries, the picture spells out the considerable cost inherent in making the journey, and the plight of those whose only hope is to put their faith in cynical human traffickers and leaky inflatable boats.

An ambitious and confident first feature

Shot in Jordan, Turkey and Chicago, with a large cast, this is an ambitious and confident first feature, yet it is hampered by a screenplay that is intent on emphasising the most obvious points about the issue rather than offering a new perspective.  

Anderson comes to directing having served as a producer on numerous projects, ranging from crowd-pleasing multiplex fare such as Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day to more esoteric projects such as Goran Stolevski’s Macedonian shape-shifting witch drama You Won’t Be Alone. The Stranger’s Case (which takes its title from a compassionate speech from the late 18th century play ’Sir Thomas More’, believed to have been written by Shakespeare) is based on Anderson’s 2020 Oscar-shortlisted short film, Refugee.

Both in its subject matter and its chapter structure, The Stranger’s Case bears similarities to Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, and the film will likely suffer from this inevitable comparison. Lacking the artistic rigour and the scalding anger of Holland’s picture, this is unlikely to enjoy a similarly rapturous festival reception. But the film’s more mainstream approach could lead to modest success with middlebrow audiences, either theatrically or through a streaming platform.

The first section in Chicago is a prelude that introduces us to Amira, but it’s not until the first chapter, titled ‘The Doctor’, that we get to know her during taut sequences shot with a snaking handheld camera. At the end of a 72-hour shift, she remains capable and unflappable, even when a soldier loyal to Assad pulls a revolver on her for saving the life of a rebel fighter. Amira’s allegiances lie with the Hippocratic oath rather than with any political faction.

All the same, when an unimaginable tragedy strikes her family during a birthday party in her honour, Amira realises that she needs to flee the country, along with her teenage daughter Rasha (Massa Daoud). At a cliffhanger moment, with the two women concealed in the trunk of a vehicle and hoping to cross the border, the story focus switches to the second chapter, ‘The Soldier’.

Mustafa (Yahya Mahayni) is a loyal military man whose belief in the Assad cause and the draconian means of achieving it is tested to breaking point over the course of a single day. The barbaric orders of a sadistic superior officer (a man with a predator’s smile and a black heart) is the wake-up call that causes Mustafa to question everything he holds as a certainty.

This chapter is followed by ‘The Smuggler’, the least successful of the five. Omar Sy plays Marwan, a people smuggler based in Turkey. The ruthlessness of a character who says of his clients, “They make it, they don’t make it – the pay is the same” is tempered by the fact that we see Marwan at home with his ailing son, dreaming of a future together overseas. But there is a crudeness to the writing here – a conversation that ends with the child assuring his father that he’ll be waiting for himcasts doubt on any of their plans. Likewise, a later scene in which a character generously gives their life jacket to another individual places a giant question mark over the survival of both. 

The two final chapters follow ‘The Poet’, a writer (Ziad Bakri) who has made it to a Turkish refugee camp with his young family but now must make the treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea to Greece, and ’The Captain’, a heroic Greek coastguard (Constantine Markoulakis) who carries the burden of the lives lost to the waves. Characters like the Captain and the Doctor, who are prepared to risk their own lives to save others, give the film some hope. But, as a pointed shot of the Chicago Trump Tower makes clear, not everyone is as sympathetic to the desperate plight of displaced people.

Production company: Philistine Films

International sales: Mister Smith Entertainment

Producer: Brandt Andersen, Ossama Bawardi, Ryan Busse, Charlie Endean

Cinematography: Jonathan Sela

Editing: Jeff Seibeneck

Production design: Julie Berghoff

Music: Nick Chuba

Main cast: Yasmine Al Massri, Yahya Mahayni, Omar Sy, Ziad Bakri, Constantine Markoulakis