Steam of Life. Courtesy of Mika Hotakainen

By Yun-hua Chen.

Organised by The Institute of Psychoanalysis under the Honorary Presidency of Bernardo Bertolucci, the Sixth European Psychoanalytic Film Festival is a miniature film festival with the specific theme of “Border-Crossing: Migration Across National and Mental States”. It is curated by Andrea Sabbadini and hosted at BAFTA, London, with 11 European films along with discussion sessions centred around these films’ representation of transitional space of psychological or geographical passage. During each Q&A session, an invited psychoanalyst responds to the film first, usually according to their understanding of the traumatic loss of languages and identities during and after the border-crossing process. Then the filmmaker, actor or someone involved in the production process provides background anecdotes and answers questions from the audience. Among the eleven films from a wide range of geopolitical settings and historical backgrounds, there are six features (The Immigrant, 1917, The Reverse, 2009, Buick Riviera, 2008, Mine Own Executioner, 1948, Il vento fa il suo giro, 2005, Princesas, 2005), three long documentaries (Steam of Life, 2010, La Forteresse, 2008, Hotel Sahara, 2009), two shorts (Stuck on Christmas, 2010, The Postcard, 2009). It is delightful to see these European films with limited distribution routes being screened at BAFTA. In addition to screenings and Q&As, there are also academic lectures and round-tables with analysts and film scholars. As the film festival aims to provide a platform for psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, filmmakers and film scholars to engage in a dialogue, it is situated at the crossroad between film theory and practice, filmmaker and spectator, psychoanalysts’ perspectives on films and film scholars’ perspective on psychoanalysis.

Steam of Life. Courtesy of Mika Hotakainen

Steam of Life, directed by Jonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen, is reminiscent of Ferzan Ozpetek’s Hamam although according to the interview with Hotakainen, the filmmakers have not watched the film. Investigating masculinity in the Finnish context, this documentary collects images of sauna of diverse sizes and types and in different locations, ranging from a sauna within a van in the forest to a sauna converted from a public phone booth. Against the backdrop of wooden walls and benches, intimate conversations flow between male protagonists of different socioeconomic backgrounds, age groups and body shapes; there are the elderly and the young, the horizontally challenged and the muscled, two good friends both with Dome Syndrome, miners, and a man who keeps a bear as a pet. While they comfortably expose their bodies in saunas, their stories are very personal about various turns and losses in life, in their roles as a son, a husband or a father. One sauna-goer’s daughter becomes his stepsister. An alcoholic robber is transformed into a content father. A father is forbidden by his ex-wife to see his child for 13 years after divorce. Another father strives to come to terms with the bereavement of his two infant children. These recounted snippets of life, separated by the insertion of stunning landscapes of Finnish countryside, have been assembled by Berghall and Hotakainen during their road trip over the period of one and half years with a crew of five people. As the camera goes very close to the protagonists and candidly shows bulging stomach, blemish, wrinkles and fingernails with black edges, this documentary goes towards haptic images of human bodies, powerfully ending with edited images of collective singing of these protagonists whose formerly unclothed bodies are now clothed.

La Forteresse

Fernand Melgar’s La Forteresse transcends a different kind of border, combining physical, geopolitical and psychological border-crossing practices. It is set in the detention centre for asylum-seekers in Vallorbe after the change of Swiss immigration regulations in 2006. At the opening of the film we follow the camera going inside “la forteresse” barricaded by heavy metal doors, and it is after crossing many different layers of locked fence that we meet the asylum-seekers, including a table of four men from different countries playing cards, the depressed and insomniac Ali from Togo, a group of religious people from different parts of Africa praying for everyone including “the authorities in Switzerland”, an Iraqi young man who hopes to finish his studies in Switzerland and at some point is caught in a fiery discussion with a Kurdish, and a Somali having walked in the desert for a month with bullet wounds. True or invented, their stories carry fascinating dignity and humanity in times of despair. The documentary also shows the perspective of the Swiss people who work there, including the centre manager, a doctor and a priest, who have to live between the extreme contrast of their double lives, for they witness the extreme plight on a daily basis. In this no man’s land, one can be physically in a place and mentally stuck in another, an outsider in the insider or an insider in the outside.

Hotel Sahara

Bettina Haasen’s Hotel Sahara continues with the theme of the longing for physical border-crossing across geopolitical boundaries and the inequality between people born in different corners of the world. As a young Cameroonian says in this documentary, every time he tries to strive for personal development, there is a wall blocking all possibilities. Set in Nouadhibou, a town in the West African country Mauritania bordered by the ocean on one side and the Sahara Desert on the other, where migrants wait for their boats, the film follows the dreams, hopes and disappointment of Africans of different origins who want to emigrate from Africa to Europe for a better life. The other side of the beautiful sea is where they risk their family’s generations-long savings and their own lives to go. Through the use of static shots and long take, the film conveys the space of stillness and of waiting that the migrants from all over Africa are caught in. Hotel Sahara is thus a liminal zone between Europe and Africa, the wealthy and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged, hope and despair, and even life and death, a poignant example of the film festival’s theme “Migration Across National and Mental States”.

Yun-hua Chen recently obtained her PhD degree in film studies from the University of St Andrews.


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