Love in the Time of Globalisation
The film uses the colour yellow to visually link the stories, which along with other choices, makes them seem constructed Photo: Amour Fou Vienna-GmbH
A woman irons a shirt, telling the camera: "The Austrian Republic dictates how much money I must earn – €1,187 – so my husband can get his residence permit back." She then tells us the staggering amount of clothes she must press this month to meet this quota. And many are far worse off in Die 727 Tage ohne Karamo (The 727 days without Karamo), a new documentary on the trials of Austrians married to Drittstaatsangehörige, non-EU foreign nationals.
The documentary weaves together several stories in a loose narrative. Starting with why marriage is frequently the only option for couples wanting to reside in Austria, it continues with the difficulties of obtaining a residence permit, the daunting financial requirements to keep it, the German-language fluency required before immigration, the harassment of spot-checks, house searches and administrative detention – and finally, how it can all be lost if your don’t live up to your "integration agreement".
Theatre of the absurd
Die 727 Tage ohne Karamo lets the bizarre tales of Kafkaesque bureaucracy speak for themselves. Some of them beggar belief: The insidious Fremdenpolizei (immigration police) even detain people at their own weddings.
The Karamo of the title remains a Godot-like presence, never on screen but always present, emblematic of everyone mourning the dearly deported, not knowing when and how they’ll meet again.
Those allowed to stay (for now) don’t have it easy either. Crushed under the weight of government demands, relationships are even more difficult to sustain. We watch an American chef refuse his exasperated wife’s request that he tidy up in the kitchen. He argues that he barely even gets a weekend – after work and mandatory German lessons – and he will not spend it cleaning. The domestic quarrel carries a sense of impending doom.
Style over substance
The film takes a stylised approach reminiscent of Austrian documentary titan Ulrich Seidl: a detached camera, rarely going in for close-ups; ordinary people either re-enacting scenes or retelling their stories, an obligatory sense of squalor even among those not living in abject poverty (most are); and a preoccupation with ugly, eccentric but not necessarily unlikeable individuals.
Staged reality, however, is a mixed bag: At times it feels forced, as when a Colombian fashion designer admits he didn’t have a house back in Bogotá and hence no experience with yard work, before proceeding to awkwardly prune a tree. It’s better when people are left to tell their own stories, such as a little girl recalling going to the authorities to take her step-father’s surname to match her mother and younger half-sister. "So that we could start being a real family," she says, although her stepfather had already
The most noticeable stylistic device however is director Anja Salomonowitz’ characteristic choice to steep the entire film in yellow, which she believes stands for "the courage to face life, fighting spirit and defiance". To this critic, the device is a bridge too far and does the material a disservice.
While stylisation can help sustain objective distance, here it merely emphasises the constructed nature of this reality, inadvertently implying the characters and their problems are constructed as well. These, however, are real people with very real problems.
As the film moves toward its conclusion, it becomes clear that despite the valiant efforts of these couples, there really only was one possible outcome.
In the final scene, an Austrian woman relates how the constant humiliation and harassment by the authorities gradually led her to see her husband not as the strong and admirable supporter she had married, but as an immature, helpless child she had adopted.
In the face of Austrian immigration law, she concludes, she too had personally failed.
727 Tage Ohne Karamo
directed by Anja Salomonowitz
Starts in Cinemas Sept. 6
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