“Europa,” Iraq’s Entry in the 94th annual Oscars, Frames Epic Refugee Struggle

15 January, 2022
Out­take from direc­tor Haider Rashid’s Europa, Iraq’s Oscar entry for the 94th annu­al awards competition.

Thomas Dallal


Iraqi-Ital­ian direc­tor Haider Rashid’s riv­et­ing Europa (2021) stark­ly por­trays a small, but deeply scorch­ing, frag­ment of the bru­tal real­i­ty and cru­el human tragedy endured by count­less refugees and asy­lum seek­ers seek­ing to enter Europe. In a micro­cosm set at and around the Turkey-Bul­gar­ia fron­tier, lead char­ac­ter Kamal’s epic migra­to­ry strug­gle encap­su­lates the duress that mil­lions like him have faced, and con­tin­ue to face, after flee­ing homes and coun­tries dur­ing armed con­flict and myr­i­ad oth­er calami­ties. Accom­plished 35-year-old Rashid’s lat­est film, his fifth fea­ture, presents a com­pelling ode to mil­lions that seek safer haven in far­away-from-home, unfa­mil­iar and fre­quent­ly hos­tile places, includ­ing Europe.

Europa cen­ters around its young lead char­ac­ter Kamal, a hunt­ed Iraqi asy­lum-seek­er who breach­es the Turkey-Bul­gar­ia bor­der. Kamal exudes a tor­ment­ed, fre­net­ic adren­a­lin rem­i­nis­cent of Ali La Pointe, rev­o­lu­tion­ary fight­er and pro­tag­o­nist in Gillo Pontecorvo’s equal­ly riv­et­ing Bat­tle for Algiers, albeit not with Algiers’ colo­nial lib­er­a­tion nar­ra­tive. Europa nev­er­the­less, and sim­i­lar­ly, deliv­ers epic, doc­u­men­tary-style dra­mat­ic his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and does so pow­er­ful­ly, align­ing in a fash­ion with Algiers’ esteemed genre. To cat­e­go­rize Europa as a thriller or a hor­ror film, as some crit­ics have, is to miss the point and sug­gests that reput­ed film cognoscen­ti, as if on cue, con­tin­ue to miss the prover­bial for­est for the trees. As direc­tor Rashid him­self point­ed­ly describes the film’s vision:

The goal was to por­tray what is a tough, inhu­mane expe­ri­ence in the most real­is­tic and vis­cer­al way pos­si­ble; breath­ing, liv­ing, and fight­ing with a resilient but nonethe­less suf­fer­ing char­ac­ter who, with his small, almost minus­cule sto­ry, rep­re­sents the strug­gles of many.

While the film focus­es strong­ly on real­ism and an inti­mate approach to the char­ac­ter, immers­ing the audi­ence with a sense of pres­ence, to me it holds a deeply sym­bol­ic nature as well: being an immi­grant or a descen­dent of immi­grants in Europe today, can often feel a lot like being lost in a wild for­est, where friends are few and foes are many.

Rashid, son of an Ital­ian moth­er and an Iraqi jour­nal­ist, direc­tor and exile who fled Sad­dam Hussein’s Iraq for Europe in the late 1970s, grew up in Italy with sig­nif­i­cant expo­sure to film and the film busi­ness. Act­ing in one his father’s films before he was ten, Rashid spent his teenage sum­mers “fol­low­ing my father around film fes­ti­vals and cul­tur­al events.” He lat­er became his father’s cam­era oper­a­tor and filmed inter­views his father made for tele­vi­sion out­lets all over the world, which piqued his inter­est and prompt­ed his first screen­writ­ing efforts. Rashid dropped out of film school short­ly after start­ing in Lon­don, then, at 23, made his first film “Tan­gled Up in Blue”, about the son of a renowned Iraqi writer cop­ing with his estranged father’s death in Bagh­dad. Evi­dent­ly, Rashid nev­er looked back and many more films have fol­lowed. This deep film expe­ri­ence, from the time of Rashid’s youth, bore boun­ti­ful filmic fruit in Europa.

Lead actor Adam Ali’s dis­turb­ing por­tray­al of Kamal’s duress in Europa painful­ly con­jures a bru­tal oblit­er­a­tion of Kamal’s youth­ful naivete as he traces and claws his way through a har­row­ing soli­tary jun­gle trek for days and nights that rever­ber­ate like an eter­ni­ty. Europa opens with Kamal’s jar­ring nar­row night­time escape from Bul­gar­i­an sol­diers, to whom an extor­tion­ate human smug­gler appears to have treach­er­ous­ly deliv­ered Kamal and oth­ers. Flee­ing ter­ri­fied and alone into pitch black, dense­ly forest­ed and alien ter­ri­to­ry, Kamal the ter­ri­fied-ter­ror­ized pro­tag­o­nist moves before the cam­era in an effec­tive­ly macro point of view that is dom­i­nat­ed by his face and this point of view per­sists to dom­i­nate until the end of the film: we are with him, in his face and almost con­stant­ly inside his pained and angst-filled heavy breath­ing. Europa con­veys its emo­tion­al­ly charged tra­jec­to­ry with only inci­den­tal dia­logue, con­fined to the lat­ter part of the film and main­ly from peo­ple Kamal encoun­ters. Kamals’ world in Europa is almost entire­ly soli­tary, in the forest.

For his first dawn in this daunt­ing for­est, deeply res­o­nant, groan­ing and sin­is­ter thwack­ing mil­i­tary heli­copters over­take eerie for­est bird­songs, a men­ac­ing sound­scape that con­jures threat­en­ing mil­i­tary birds of prey rem­i­nis­cent of Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s grim war clas­sic, Apoc­a­lypse Now (1979). When agi­tat­ed and adren­a­line-wired Kamal rips a strip of cloth from his bright red Mohamed Salah tee-shirt to tourni­quet his painful­ly gashed sneak­er sole, he also seems to be shred­ding any youth­ful mis­con­cep­tion of a warm and wel­com­ing Europe or of ever attain­ing the leg­endary Egypt­ian soc­cer legend’s fame and glo­ry as Liverpool’s star strik­er. In a scratchy voice, Kamal ekes out an Ara­bic lul­la­by and, seem­ing to recall his moth­er, we see a vul­ner­a­ble boy far out of place in a ter­ri­fy­ing, hos­tile and utter­ly lethal man’s world. This lethal­i­ty is borne out in sev­er­al har­row­ing near miss­es, but also direct­ly in a scene that the film deft­ly reg­is­ters as an addi­tion­al tor­ment Kamal for­ev­er will endure.

Haider Rashid is an Iraqi-Ital­ian direc­tor and pro­duc­er born in 1985. He direct­ed Tan­gled Up In Blue, Silence: All Roads Lead To Music, It’s About To Rain and Street Opera, the short film The Deep and No Bor­ders, the first Ital­ian vir­tu­al real­i­ty film. His films have won awards at the Venice and Dubai fes­ti­vals, as well as at the Nas­tri d’Ar­gen­to ceremony.

Based sole­ly on young British-Libyan actor Adam Ali’s com­pelling and high­ly emo­tive por­tray­al of Kamal, one can envi­sion Ali pro­gress­ing on to an illus­tri­ous career. His vis­cer­al depic­tion of a young asy­lum seeker’s duress ranks as required view­ing for any­one still some­how har­bor­ing any doubt that the plight of refugees and asy­lum seek­ers war­rants empa­thy and com­men­su­rate­ly com­pas­sion­ate pol­i­cy at the state lev­el. This empa­thy should tan­gi­bly sup­port, and com­pel, 146 states —vir­tu­al­ly every state, that is — to ful­ly hon­or oblig­a­tions they for­mal­ly have bound them­selves to abide by as rat­i­fiers of the 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion, a core pil­lar of the post-World War II human rights system.

The intri­cate­ly sculpt­ed and haunt­ing design of Europa’s devoid-of-music sound­track sub­tly com­ple­ments unset­tling, large­ly hand-held and lit­er­al­ly in Kamal’s face cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Hand-held agi­ta­tion in the film’s unflinch­ing tight fram­ing ampli­fies view­er per­cep­tion of Kamal’s own agi­ta­tion. With­in this cin­e­mato­graph­ic style, Adam Ali’s per­for­mance pro­vides the film’s major cues and move­ment, no small task and one he whol­ly mas­ters.  Art­ful use of high­ly selec­tive focus addi­tion­al­ly com­pounds Kamal’s angst and his fleet­ing abil­i­ty to take in his  unset­tling atmos­phere while run­ning, climb­ing, scratch­ing and thrash­ing his way thru the end­less for­est, a ver­i­ta­ble deer hunt­ed and in fear for his life. This tight­ly edit­ed, 75-minute, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, sound, fury and fear cock­tail irre­press­ibly, and lucid­ly, immers­es behold­ers in Kamal’s epic ordeal with all of its fright­en­ing uncertainty.

Europa apt­ly clos­es with Kamal emerg­ing from the for­est but with­out a clear res­o­lu­tion or deliv­ery out of his liv­ing hell, hon­or­ing the ter­ri­fy­ing uncer­tain­ty that the plight of Kamal and mil­lions like him entails. For all of its ambi­gu­i­ty, how­ev­er, the film’s end­ing vague­ly sug­gests a hope­ful, per­haps even peace­ful res­o­lu­tion — an obvi­ous sub­text being the untold bag­gage for Kamal and his descen­dants to heave and reck­on with through their life­times, like mil­lions of oth­ers sim­i­lar­ly dis­placed, uproot­ed and dispossessed.

Europa achieves its dra­mat­ic objec­tives as expert­ly, and unusu­al­ly, as Pon­tecor­vo so haunt­ing­ly did in Algiers, along­side his leg­endary com­pos­er friend Ennio Mor­ri­cone. Europa expert­ly thrusts a uni­fied pack­age of fre­net­i­cal­ly paced, unset­tling and whol­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, life and death dra­ma at view­ers with lit­tle mer­cy, as the sub­ject mat­ter tru­ly deserves and requires. Accord­ing­ly, it deserved its recent des­ig­na­tion as Iraq’s for­eign fea­ture film entry to the upcom­ing 94th Acad­e­my Awards and, although ulti­mate­ly not mak­ing the short­list, this view­er roots for it to reg­is­ter strong and pos­i­tive impacts well beyond.



Thomas Dallal is a widely published and award-winning Palestinian-America photojournalist, who grew up between upstate New York and Kuwait. After studying at McGill and moving to New York City, he photographed around the world for leading newspapers and magazines from a NYC base for 15 years. Among others, Tom covered the first Palestinian Intifada, Syria, the summer 1993 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, early ‘non-implementation’ days of the Oslo Process, especially in the Gaza Strip, the GAM insurrection in Aceh and, as well as the Americas from his 20-year New York City base. Tom obtained his New York license to practice law in 2008, worked on war crimes cases for the President and presiding appeals judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague before moving to Palestine in 2009 to work as legal advisor for the PLO during the US Senator George Mitchell led so-called proximity talks between the PLO and Israel. He continued to work in the international law, policy and humanitarian-development realms in and around Jerusalem for a decade, eventually coming full circle back to the visual, and audio, arts. Tom currently works as a documentary cinematographer and photographer, as well as legal and policy consultant in the Haifa and Jerusalem environs.


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