Berlin (AFP) - After six years of silence cult Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki returned to the screen Tuesday with "The Other Side of Hope", a call for mercy towards migrants seeking asylum in Europe.
The new comedy-drama drew cheers at a press preview at the Berlin film festival, one of Europe's top cinema showcases, where it is in competition for the Golden Bear top prize to be awarded Saturday.
Gritty and laconic in typical Kaurismaki style, "The Other Side of Hope" comes on the heels of his 2011 movie "Le Havre", and is the second instalment in a planned migration-themed trilogy.
The film recounts the melancholy fate of Syrian migrant Khaled, played by Syrian actor Sherwan Haji, who ends up against his will in remote Finland -- a hostile place on first impression peopled by taciturn, cold Finns.
A hapless former travelling salesman named Wikstrom, who is trying to get started in the restaurant business and who is played by Sakari Kuosmanen, finds Khaled sleeping behind his skip.
They first greet each other suspiciouslybut Wikstrom eventually decides to help Khaled start a new life, realising the Syrian has even bigger troubles than his own marital woes.
Kaurismaki told reporters that many Finns saw the arrival of Muslim refugees as a kind of "invasion" and that he aimed to challenge that view.
"I was very modest in wanting to change the audience. I want to change the world," he said with a wry smile.
"Europe is a tiny place. First I change Europe, then we go to Asia."
He condemned what he called an erosion of European democratic values but said Germany had set a positive example, after Chancellor Angela Merkel's government allowed in more than one million asylum seekers since 2015.
"In this sense I respect Mrs Merkel... the only politician who seems to be at least interested in the problem," he said, speaking in English.
Like many European countries, Finland has tightened its asylum policies to reduce the flow of migrants from war-torn regions such as Syria and Iraq.
- 'Ignored' refugees suffer -
The film's 31-year-old lead actor Haji, born in northeastern Syria, ended up in Helsinki a year before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, after falling in love with a Finnish woman in Damascus.
"The reason why I consider myself a semi-refugee is that I cannot go back," the soft-spoken Haji, whose own family has since been forced to flee Syria, told AFP in Helsinki.
During his acting studies in Damascus, Haji was introduced to Kaurismaki's work, first with "The Man Without a Past" (2002), which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
But little did he guess that years later his first screen role would be as a Syrian refugee in a Kaurismaki movie.
"This movie gives more depth to (refugees). They are human beings, who have loved ones, are loved by someone, they have history, feelings, pain, suffering. One of the sufferings of a refugee is to be ignored," Haji said.
Haji's Finnish co-star, Sakari Kuosmanen, 60, has acted in at least a dozen Kaurismaki films.
"People should do more civic activities and rebel a little more," Kuosmanen said, in a nod to his character Wikstrom who helps Khaled off the street.
Kaurismaki's previous film "Le Havre", a tale about an African immigrant boy in the eponymous French port city, was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.