The 24th International Raindance Film Festival opened last night with its feature presentation Problemski Hotel, a story about a group of asylum seekers in a Belgian immigration centre. The film has accrued an odd prescience in light of recent events, despite the book being written in 2001 and the screenplay coming together over the past five years. Whilst being told in a linear form, its original guise as a series of tableaus is not forgotten and allows the audience to connect with the plethora of characters without the task becoming overwhelming. That’s not to say, however, that Problemski Hotel ever allows you to simply enjoy it; the film is unflinchingly bleak.
The story follows Bipul, a man with no memory of his past, capable of speaking multiple languages, and holding an ability to quash the various tensions and tribulations of those in his company. His talents are employed by the workers in the centre and asylum seekers alike, whether he’s drafted to play chess with an intensely devout Muslim so his wife can be spoken to alone, or simply to roll cigarettes which he never smokes. The whole film is experienced through the lens of this nobody, with the subtitles only offering you an understanding of the languages Bipul speaks, leaving you just as stranded as he sometimes is.
The stories throughout Problemski Hotel leave you cold: witnessing suicide, racism, and a distressing birth of an unwanted child, without ever letting you hide from it. There is some hope scattered throughout the film, but this exists only in the disposition of certain characters whose optimism appears naïve, leaving you perhaps preferring there were none at all. These vignettes are interspersed with Bipul’s musings to his French psychiatrist (a language he doesn’t speak) which unfortunately come across more pretentious than anything, quoting and questioning Keats throughout. He initially intrigues and endears himself to you, but as the film carries on, his frequent soliloquising becomes terse and tired, an unfortunate but necessary character trait.
The building in which Problemski Hotel was filmed imbues the production with an incredibly surreal, Beckettian feel, an ingenious notion which the director takes full advantage of. One particular scene follows Bipul, a fellow asylum seeker and a bureaucrat through a long hallway, opening into a room that seems comically large, housing only three desks in a space capable of twenty times that, all of which is decorated loosely with tinsel and the like. It is these moments which truly provide the relief of this picture, but also add further to the hopeless, unreal lives which these people are forced to live.
Problemski Hotel is a film of outstanding class, with the director and writer’s skill shining through. Everything is coldly real, there is no room for dialogue from the writer’s pen (barring Bipul’s soliloquies), leaving the picture bleakly true. The film is not one you’d take a date to, nor one that I would advise watching if you’re not in the best of moods, but it is certainly one that must be seen. You will not walk out of the cinema happy or hopeful, but you will not regret taking the emotional hit.
Image: Flanders Image 2016