AMSTERDAM – If Lars Von Trier were to make a documentary about the current immigration crisis in Europe, it might very well turn out like “Stranger in Paradise,” the debut feature by Guido Hendrikx.
Aged just 29, the ambitious director – who believes himself a late-starter, having “only” taken up filmmaking in his early twenties – is already committed to thorny issues, as evidenced by his controversial 2014 short “Among Us,” which focused on the stories of three adult paedophiles. Developed in his native Netherlands but shot in Italy, “Stranger in Paradise” offers three takes on immigration, first from an aggressive right-wing tabloid perspective, then from a more humane, liberal stance. Finally, a classroom of real-life migrants are told how their cases may yet be handled.
The film opened IDFA on Wednesday night, affirming outgoing festival director Ally Derks’ belief that the event “has a reputation to maintain for strong, topical, controversial opening films – films that generate discussion on both form and content, by young, talented makers.” Indeed, Hendrickx is enjoying the discussion his provocative film has caused there.
“Most people are a little bit surprised by the first act, because it’s quite confrontational,” he notes. “I can understand that, but on the other hand, this is what’s going on in real life. But they also find the ending quite interesting – they say it holds up a mirror.”
How did you always want be a filmmaker?
Guido Hendrikx: First I studied medicine, after I finished secondary school. After I quit I went to university to study Liberal Arts and Science. Actually, it was kind of a coincidence how I got myself into filmmaking. I had a kind of side job – I used to get groceries for people who weren’t able to do it by themselves, and there I met this remarkable man, who hadn’t been outside his home for two years. I became friends with him and I made a film about him, called “Day Is Done”. It was accepted by IDFA. [Laughs] I didn’t even know what it was, this festival! And then I went to film school – it was also my admission film. So I guess my interest grew from there.
Have you always been attracted to difficult subjects?
Yeah. As a documentary maker, I think you’re always preoccupied with the subject you’ve chosen for quite a long time, so your world gets very narrow. So for me it’s important to challenge myself and find a topic that’s interesting. Also, I can learn something for myself.
What made you decide to tackle immigration?
When I first went to Lampedusa – initially for a different film project, which turned out not to be so interesting – I talked to many migrants, and I became intrigued with the power relationship that existed. I first noticed from a distance, and then subsequently during the research, the power relationship between Europeans and migrants. So I tried to take a more detached view of it, making no judgement. I don’t really like a lot of ‘activist’ documentaries… I think you should take the audience seriously, and if your message is only one-sided, then it seems very cynical to me. I think you have to let the audience work.
Where did you shoot the film?
The first idea was to shoot in Lampedusa. For many migrants this is the first place where they set foot on European soil. But, practically, we couldn’t shoot there, so we had to look for another, similar place. We chose Sicily.
When did you come up with the concept for the film?
My goal was always to make the power relationship. I was looking for a very direct [setting] – an arena that you cannot escape from, and also an arena that emphasises this power relationship. The result was a classroom.
Who are the people in that classroom?
They are real migrants. Some of them arrived a few days before, some a few weeks, so they really were fresh, you could say. We did a test shoot a year before the real shoot, in which we learned a lot. We had certain criteria – 80% of the migrants had to speak English and they had to come from various countries. We were quite transparent about it, so we explained everything. We said, ‘We’re going to represent to you all the things we hear in Europe about the refugee crisis. We want you to interact and react as you try to find your voice in this setting.’ But what’s interesting is that you [as the audience] don’t really get to know them, and that was a choice we made on purpose. We didn’t want to give the refugees the stage because there are many documentaries on this subject, and what I find sometimes problematic is that filmmakers try to get inside the head of the refugee. For me, that’s always a little bit shallow – how can we really visualise what they’re going through when we live in such a different world?
How did you gather all the information you needed?
For the first two acts we studied the public debate and various political sentiments. For the third act, for a year or so, we talked a lot with the immigration service in the Netherlands. We also looked at policy papers and records of people who actually do the immigration interviews. In reality, those interviews last four or five hours, but our goal was to catch the essence of it.
The migrants we see in the film – what’s their status?
All of them have a goal to obtain a resident’s permit. That’s what they all told us. Most of them will stay in Italy, because of the Dublin regulation, and then they will go into the procedure there that will determine where they come from and what their chances are.
What was their experience of making the film?
Some were shocked, but some were happy that they had some insight into how Europeans were talking and thinking about them, and how E.U. policy works. But what’s interesting there is that the power relationship we tried to show and make tangible in the film also exists in the power relationship between us, as filmmakers, and our subjects. Sometimes they say things, and it’s hard to know if they’re saying what they want to say or if they’re just being polite to us.
Did making this film change your own thoughts on immigration?
I became more sceptical, you could say. If you’re researching through Italy and you’re seeing the different camps where these people are being held, they’re very isolated from society, and it’s very difficult for them to integrate. For me it’s like a new lower class, one that we are deliberately creating. Still, if you compare Europe, for example, to the United States, we have quite an open [attitude]. I mean, we are thinking about our moral [duty] and our relationship to them.
What’s next for you?
Well, this film has been quite an intense process, because there were a lot of deadlines, and we worked hard, without any brakes, to make it to IDFA for the premiere. For the next project? I only have one rule for myself and it is not to repeat myself. So it will be something totally different.