BIFF 2017: Stranger in Paradise

Bergen International Film Festival 2017

Stranger in Paradise is a controversial one right from the start. The movie is both documentary and fiction. Set in a single classroom, we watch as the Dutch stage-actor, Valentijn Dhaenens, delivers a brutal introductory course in European immigration policies to a group of recently arrived African refugees — all of whom are aware that this is an acted exercise. In the films three acts, Dhaenens alternates between right-wing conservatism, humanism, and legal regulations.

Director Guido Hendrikx shines a light on a part of the refugee crisis that doesn’t make it to the front pages a lot. He examines the immigration policies and procedures we work with in Europe, and how we greet refugees from around the world.


In the movie’s first act, Dhaenens plays the unconvinced right-wing conservative. “Go home and build your own welfare state,” he says to them, as he explains how “the Europeans managed to fix their own countries following World War II.” “We don’t want you,” he says to them, as he explains the financial burden they will place on European society. Not to mention how they “endanger European cultures and values.”

In the second act, Dhaenens plays the welcoming liberal. He conjures up a picture of Europe that will embrace them as fellow citizens; a Europe that will be lucrative, and where it will be easy for them to start their new lives. He talks about how much Europe owes them for its colonial past. He listens to their stories. He makes sure to tell them how brave they are. He welcomes them all.

In the third act, he follows the rules. He guides them through the bureaucratic process. This is slow and arduous, and one by one the refugees are asked to leave the room, as “they will never be able to gain asylum in the Netherlands.” In the end, only a handful remain. One of them is on the run from Taliban, another is certain she’ll be recruited to a militia or placed in jail for the rest of her life should she return home. Another man, who was declined, wanted to pursue a career as a singer, which he couldn’t do in his home country.

Valentijn Dhaenens carries the burden of this role with incredible precision. He is fully committed and unrestrained. His presence in each of the “characters” is fully authentic. He is wholly unsympathetic in one act and profoundly warm in another. He doesn’t change his hair, nor does he change his voice or accent, but he manages to feel like completely different people. It’s a performance of a lifetime.

Stranger in Paradise is a thoughtful essay that opens up the conversation by showing us a mirror of our selves and our neighbors. It is sure to provoke. Not only for the disparate ideas and philosophies it presents but for the way it does so. The amalgam of documentary and fiction brings with it a handful of ethical and moral dilemmas that serve as brilliant conversation starters for when the credits have rolled. Is it ok to put these migrants through this process in this way? Which value does it serve for them? The movie doesn’t engage with these questions, but I don’t think it needs to. It leaves it up for us to consider. Stranger in Paradise is up there with I am Not Your Negro, Fire at See, and The Act of Killing in terms of importance and vision, and it’s an essential lesson for everyone to see.

There is a lot of focus on the refugee crisis at the Bergen International Film Festival this year, with narrative features like Jupiter’s Moon and More, and documentaries like Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, The Good Postman, Nowhere to Hide.



Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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