Director: Visar Morina
Section: World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Much of the German-language Exil, a deceptively sharp portrait of modern-day prejudice, follows Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) – a Kosovar in Germany who is convinced that he is a victim. A victim of not just workplace racism but also sneaky immigrant-phobia and general injustice. Xhafer has a German wife (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller) and three kids in a cozy house, but you can sense that it’s not quite his home. He feels unwelcome after years in a foreign environment: His eyes dart about a room, as if he’s constantly trying to ascertain the true intent of people around him.
Director Visar Morina designs Exil, his second feature, as a film that is supposed to play on the viewer’s perception of the underdog-immigrant syndrome
The film begins well into his predicament; he is excluded from an office email chain, which pushes him to the edge. In a particularly striking scene, a secretary planning an office party asks him if he eats “pork”. Xhafer is a chemical engineer in a company that seems unresponsive – and worse, ignorant – of him. Given the dark core of Kanu Behl’s recent short Binnu ka Sapna, there’s a think-piece somewhere in how cinema is waking up to chemical engineering as a silent swamp of mental decay and existential meltdowns (“chemical imbalance”?)…but that’s for another day.
Xhafer is sure that that his mother-in-law resents him, he suspects that his wife is cheating on him, he knows that people mock his strange accent, and he believes that one of his colleagues is behind a morbid prank involving dead rats on his property. The explosion is coming. It doesn’t help (or maybe it does) that actor Mišel Matičević resembles Colin Firth, perpetually worried and rarely smiling. His self-seriousness is so blatant that even his wife accuses him of being the kind of hopelessly vain man who might have had a breast-enlargement surgery if he were a woman. When he complains about office, she mentions that maybe they just don’t like him – “I’d have understood it if you were an Arab, but…,” she trails off.
Director Visar Morina designs Exil, his second feature, as a film that is supposed to play on the viewer’s perception of the underdog-immigrant syndrome. Xhafer behaves like he believes he is a story that cinema often romanticises. He hits back like a typical underdog – rebelling against his boss and co-workers, ridiculing his mother-in-law, exposing a prejudiced culture, and defying the world like a wronged and bullied man who deserves better. At one point, he dumps a bucket of dead rats onto his chairman’s table as a mark of protest. The camera replicates his paranoia, spending most of the film over his shoulders and focusing on his sweaty neck, like a nasty gossipmonger waiting to betray him from behind his back. The background score sounds like an amplified version of his head throbbing with suppressed angst. All of this urges us to side with him and cheer for his comeback. It urges us to believe that he is a good man in a bad world.
Much of the German-language Exil, a deceptively sharp portrait of modern-day prejudice, follows Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) – a Kosovar in Germany who is convinced that he is a victim. A victim of not just workplace racism but also sneaky immigrant-phobia and general injustice.
And herein lies Exil’s trump-card. It forces us to invest in the perspective of its protagonist for so long and with such ferocity that – like its protagonist – we lose our sense of peripheral vision. There are hints that Xhafer isn’t the quintessential victim-hero, that he isn’t as self-righteous as he thinks he is: He regularly has sex with the company’s cleaning lady, and almost strangles his wife to death during a torrid nightmare. Beyond his struggle, it’s clear that he is a flawed, unpleasant man. The fear of not belonging has hijacked his personality to such an extent that he inadvertently conforms to his reputation as a hostile outsider.
The final act has two revelatory scenes that subverts our reading of Xhafer’s character. It completely turns Exil, the entire film, into a red herring of sorts: The perspective we want to see rather than the perspective we should look for. The revelations also confirms the worst – not that the world isn’t a terrible place, but that it is terrible to all kinds of unassuming people that escape the radar of cinema-conscious storytellers. Films only tell us one side of a story. Socially conscious movies spend so long focusing on the loud binaries of racism that it completely misses the quiet greyness of suffering. They follow people like Xhafer for so long that they forget to notice the people in his narrative shadows.
Exil builds upon this disease and asks us: Are you watching closely? Because if you are, you might just notice that Xhafer actually lives a life of privilege. He isn’t as much of a story as, say, an undocumented cleaning lady or a colleague with zero communication skills. All we see are his versions of them: A vengeful mistress and a rude co-worker. All we see are the people who can afford to be exiled.