Saturday 2 January 2021

His House

This is your home now. 

In 2004, a collection of European film-makers created an anthology film called Visions of Europe. I can’t recall the details of many of the segments, but I remember, in fragments, the contribution of Austrian director Barbara Albert, titled Mars. In it, Kathrin Resetarits plays a woman who works as a stenographer, taking notes of interviews with people who are seeking asylum. The process seems brutal but is communicated through her passive note-taking. In order to gain asylum, the precise details of trauma have to be relieved, and retold in a way that is believable to the interviewer. A incomprehensible horror has to be made into a coherent narrative, to a listener whose job it is to poke holes and find errors. Survival depends on the ability to convince, to successfully demonstrate sustained wounds, to people who live safe lives far away. It is an inherently inhumane process. 

Writer and director Remi Weekes introduces his two main characters, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) when they have successfully passed the test. They are leaving the migration detention centre to begin their life in an unnamed city in Britain, and the mere fact that they have succeeded in a process that opens wounds and investigates them for seriousness before admitting a right to safety hints at the trauma behind their journey from South Sudan to the United Kingdom. The bureaucrats they are facing show little empathy, instead they demand that Bol and Rial prove that they are “the good ones”, that they fit in neatly, that they follow the strict set of rules that this perverted form of freedom brings with it. The rules are read out quickly, from a phone screen, by their support officer (played by Matt Smith) once he has taken them to their derelict house on a street surrounded by similar ones: no friends, no parties, no pets. With the additional command that neither of them can work, that they must rely on the begrudgingly given kindness of the state and strangers, the rules spell out a stifling isolation. They don’t mention anything about resources for the couple to address their trauma, or a willingness to admit that such support should be given. The right to stay in and of itself is considered the great gift. Matt Smith’s character becomes one of the worst offenders, pretending support and empathy when all he wants is a neat process and as little fuss as possible. 

Bol and Rial react to that situation differently. They both walk around the derelict home that is scattered with the vestiges of someone else’s messy life, a home that lacks basic amenities, that is falling apart in front of them as the support officer (as will others say, in the future) points out that it is bigger than his own. It’s a situation geared to demand gratitude for something that feels poisoned already, but Bol is eager to begin this new life, to fit in, to show that he can make this life work. Later, he will demand that they eat at the table with knife and fork, that they speak English. He will walk into a discount clothing store and pick out outfits that match the white, happy family on the wall exactly, a parody of assimilation that only demands, but doesn’t give anything beyond (Rial will later say, sarcastically, unseasoned) scraps.

For the first part of the film, it appears as if the horror will come from the outside. Situations feel ambiguous and dangerous, as if they could tip at any moment. Bol walks into a pub of white football fans, but emerges unscathed. Neighbours leer unfriendly, but never cross the boundary. Rial, following a hand-drawn map, attempts to find the hospital but gets lost in the labyrinth of the housing complex, and some teenagers abuse her verbally instead of helping her find her way. Bol walks into a shop and is immediately followed by a security guard. But in the end, none of these situations escalate; what they do is contribute to the utter isolation, the feeling that these two are utterly alone in this ruin of a home that they have been told they barely deserve. 

And then the film flips. The haunting eeriness of the house that was perhaps only nightmares of the couple’s flight before turns into a literal haunting, the second kind: Where the people come with the ghosts, not the place. Noises from the holes in the wall, faces appearing, allusions to a lost child. Rial immediately realises it is a witch who has come with them, who demands repayment for a crime that is only revealed much later, while Bol holds closely to the idea that they only have to try to fit in harder to beat back the demons, that what they must do is follow what the bureaucrats have demanded. He fixes the electricity, he brings home the care packages, but as soon as night falls, it becomes impossible to deny that something else lives here with them, and that this something is not benign. 

Weekes and the brilliant performances by Dirisu and Mosaku (who has been outstanding in everything she has ever been in) create a portrait of a family suffering from profound trauma and grief, but also from a haunting that is real. It creates a divide between them, one that is bridged in the end by an act of violence that, instead of ending the haunting, invites all of the ghosts into the large house that is now a home. To become a home, Bol argues, the ghosts must be accepted and become part of life – a refusal of the people walking around, judging them for their actions, for their inability to neatly overcome their trauma and fit in perfectly. This is a great horror film – a literal one, with monsters, and a profound one, about horrible trauma located in a hostile environment that refuses empathy. 

2020, directed by Remi Weekes, starring Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Matt Smith, Javier Botet, Yvonne Campbell. 

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