The current refugee crisis is one of biggest concerns of the present time in Europe, as new bulletins and the written press focus attention on vessels sinking in the Mediterranean en route and refugee camps placed on national borders, such as the Calais jungle. It is, therefore, no surprise to see these narratives and stories filtering into feature film production. The tone of approach to such a difficult topic can perhaps be seen to take one of three routes – hard-hitting drama, documentary/essay films or comedy in the form of political satire. Michael Haneke approaches the subject matter this coming year (2017) in France with Happy End, and Italian essay films and documentaries like Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rossi, 2016) and the earlier SudEuropa (Maria Iorio and Raphaêl Cuomo, 2005-2007) have received critical attention at major international film festivals.
Following Rune Denstad Langlo’s Welcome to Norway (2016), Vardoen’s House of Norway uses comedy to tackle the refugee crisis, the inadequacies of the political system and the reductive nature of citizenship tests. The turn to comedy to articulate this crisis is not unique to the Scandinavian countries, as evinced by the recent German film Willkommen bei den Hartmanns (Simon Verhoeven, 2016). As a result, there is a certain topicality invested in these films and their narratives. For instance, Vardoen’s House of Norway recalls propositions made by the Norwegian government to send refugees to the remote Svalbard archipelago (as reported in the Independent newspaper in 2015 in the UK). This is alluded to by the opening sequence in which Ramin is advised to travel further and, as a result, he will need to complete his journey to the Academy by boat. The opening journeying motifs of the bicycle and the boat are then replaced by imagery pertaining to stasis, that is the isolated and secluded Academy. Once again, Ramin’s entry to Norway by bicycle chimes with newspaper reports that draw attention to refugees using the mode of transport to cross from Russia into Norway via the border crossing point of Storskog. These stories permeated the written press in late 2015 and early 2016, which could easily have been around the time of the film’s conception.
House of Norway is bookended by two aerial shots – the first encircles the Academy highlighting its remoteness and isolation before framing Ramin’s arrival alone by boat, whereas the second glides over Ramin and his former assessor Oddleiv as they stand on the water’s edge. The beauty and virtuosity of these two shots stand apart from the rest of the film. Despite the film’s satirical tone, the two shots of the vast, dramatic Norwegian landscape evoke Ingmar Bergman’s profound representations of nature and human relationships. In the concluding images, the Norwegian natural landscape is isolating and exclusionary for the migrant characters. Has Ramin been truly ‘included’ by passing the arbitrary citizenship test? Or does he remain excluded as the camera leaves him behind at the Academy and floats seamlessly over the mountaintops? In this sense, the film concludes ambiguously. The question of integration is left, like Ramin and Yemane, ‘in limbo’. The camera’s final position just above the snow-covered peaks evokes an ethereal in-between space that is not quite heavenly.
A conversation between Ramin and the long-serving janitor Yemane neatly sums up the film’s intended message, which re-emerges in the film’s final credits. Yemane spends 24 years at the Academy ‘in limbo’, described by the characters in the literal way of being between Heaven and Hell. However, the metaphorical connotations of the conversation are revelatory, highlighting the in-betweenness of the characters and questioning their sense of belonging. The Academy is placed in this in-between space, a hollow and inescapable gap that prevents the characters from being officially seen as Norwegian or having dual citizenship. In fleeting exchanges that serve as the key reference to Ramin’s homeland, the two characters converse in the Persian language of Farsi. To this end, the start of Ramin’s journey is left oblique, pointing to a more universal understanding of refugees travelling from the Middle East to Europe, i.e. his story is one of many. This is further evidenced by the generic Middle Eastern and North African beats that reverberate throughout the narrative. The non-diegetic music at these points begins to place the narrative within the current context and climate with people fleeing conflicts and crises in Syria, amongst others in the Middle East and Africa.
Taken at face value, the film’s description of culture appears to chime with the work of social anthropology scholar Ulf Hannerz and his interpretations of cultural flows. Whilst in a discussion with Oddleiv, Ramin elides flows of culture with that of a river, suggesting that he has transported aspects of his culture with his body and physical presence. He states that ‘no culture is so rich that it can’t be a little more rich. No society is totally developed’. This statement suggests that Norwegian culture and society (and this could also be said for countries in Western Europe) would benefit greatly from greater levels of integration and inclusion for minority groups. These are perhaps some of the intended ‘jabs’ that Vardoen noted in an interview with Raindance in 2016.
House of Norway uses comedy self-reflexively. It is a tool to expose the arbitrariness of citizenship tests. The finger is certainly turned back on itself, pointing to Norway’s treatment of refugees. The exaggerated criteria range from a liking of national delicacies to Norwegian hospitality, and finally, to promiscuity and sexual attentiveness. The question lingers, would all Norwegians pass this test and give access to their innermost intimate details? To be truly Norwegian is revealed in line with Western neoliberal society more widely, as purely hedonistic. Or put more simply, drunk.
Helmed by Jan Vardoen, House of Norway is the filmmaker’s third feature film, following Heart of Lightness (2014) and Høst: Autumn Fall (2015). Continuing with his homages to the beauty and variety of the Norwegian landscapes, House of Norway is a comedy that attempts to drive home key points about the refugee crisis. The film moves between scenes with dense dialogue to episodes drenched in irony and dark humour that epitomise a political satire. Despite briefly addressing moments of critical importance at this juncture, there is not quite the same bite as the dark humour of an Aki Kaurismäki.