The Movie Waffler Raindance Film Festival 2024 Review - THE STRANGERS’ CASE | The Movie Waffler

Raindance Film Festival 2024 Review - THE STRANGERS’ CASE

The Strangers' Case review
Several characters' stories interweave as migrants attempt to flee Syria for Europe.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Brandt Andersen

Starring: Yasmine Al Massri, Yahya Mahayni, Omar Sy, Ziad Bakri, Constantine Markoulakis, Jason Beghe, Ayman Samman, Massa Daoud

It may feel particularly prescient in the current moment thanks to being stoked by politicians on both sides of the divide, but there's nothing new about anti-immigrant sentiment. On May Day of 1517, Londoners rioted in protest at a recent influx of immigrant workers. Several decades later a writer by the name of William Shakespeare penned a play, 'Sir Thomas More', which referenced said disruption. Writer/director Brandt Andersen borrows a phrase from that play for the title of his feature debut, The Strangers' Case. As Shakespeare did all those centuries ago, Andersen is hoping to foster understanding and empathy for migrants through his work.

The Strangers' Case review

Expanded from his 2020 short Refugee, Andersen's feature is broken into chapters, each of which focusses on a specific player in a story that begins in war-torn Syria and finds its way to a Chicago hospital. The first chapter, "The Doctor", introduces us to Amira (Yasmine Al Massri), a doctor completing an exhausting 72-hour shift at an Aleppo hospital. She's been so busy saving lives and arguing with soldiers who complain about her treating the enemy that she's forgotten it's her birthday. Later that night she celebrates with her family, but the dinner is interrupted by a bomb that reduces the home to rubble. Amira survives with her daughter Rasha (Massa Daoud) but the rest of her family is wiped out. Deciding it's time to finally flee Syria, Amira and Rasha begin a perilous journey towards a new life.

Each leg of said journey switches its POV to a new character. Mustafa (Yahya Mahayni) is a soldier in the Syrian army who finds his conscience eating away at him as he's ordered to commit atrocities by his superiors. In Turkey we find Marwan (Omar Sy), a refugee smuggler whose cold-hearted attitude to his desperate "customers" ("Whether they live or die, I get paid") is contrasted with his affection for his young son, whom he promises to take to America when he has saved up enough money from his illicit trade. One of Marwan's clients is Fathi (Ziad Bakri), who puts the lives of his family in the smuggler's hands by boarding a crammed boat clearly not fit to cross a pond, let alone the Aegean sea. On the shores of Greece we meet Stavros (Constantine Markoulakis), a coast guard haunted by the many lives he couldn't save.

The Strangers' Case review

Andersen has a background in activism, which perhaps explains why The Strangers' Case resembles a polemic first and a film second. The filmmaker is clearly more interested in getting a message across than in creating well-rounded characters we can become invested in. It's undoubtedly an important message, but the harsh truth is that those who need to hear it are unlikely to be affected by a movie like The Strangers' Case. The protagonists of The Strangers' Case are less characters and more chess pieces, pawns in a piece of propaganda; righteous propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless. They exist simply to make a blunt point and the film has little interest in who they are, rather what roles they represent. They're a procession of victim, aggressor and saviour stereotypes.

Andersen concludes each chapter with a heavy-handed cliffhanger before dismissing the people we've spent the last 15 minutes getting to know. Unlike Matteo Garrone's recent migrant drama Io Capitano, we don't share the fraught journey with one person we get to know along the way but rather one clichéd character after another. The Strangers' Case may have been better served by a multi-part TV mini-series that would give us an hour in the company of each of its players rather than a quarter of that time.

The Strangers' Case review

That's not to say The Strangers' Case entirely fails to draw us in. It's very slickly made and has the polished urgency of a prestige TV show. It may rely on a series of melodramatic contrivances, but Andersen displays a command of this sort of tabloid filmmaking, keeping things moving at a pace that prevents us from thinking too much in the moment about the cheap manipulation of it all. The characters may be one-note, but the performances are anything but. Every actor works wonders with the thinly sketched figure they're inhabiting, with Sy a standout as the smuggler whose tough exterior seems to mask an inner fear.

The Strangers' Case won't change anyone's closed mind on the issue of immigration, nor will it provide any fresh insight for those already of a compassionate bent. But perhaps the point of films like this is not to affect change in the moment but to serve as a historical document in the future, lest we forget what life was like for so many unfortunate souls in the early 21st century.

The Strangers' Case plays at the 2024 Raindance Film Festival on June 24th.

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