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Can there be a Happy End to the Human Flow?

Michael Haneke’s newest film, Happy End, reflects a fascinatingly eclectic mix of texts, as well as referencing many of Haneke’s own films, making for a particularly complex, open and highly readable film experience. Central to it, as to many contemporary films, is the ever-present awareness of what has been termed ‘the refugee crisis’: the ‘problem’ of people who are displaced from their homes, their home countries, through no fault of their own. Ai Weiwei’s new film, Human Flow, has been lauded as, amongst other things, an “exhaustive tour of every refugee crisis currently going on in the world”, and as representing said crises effectively and with a human face, despite his overall aim of taking a bird’s-eye view of the situation by the use of stunning drone footage and by covering multiple countries and displaced groups across the globe. There are some powerful moments, not least when a man is visibly and increasingly distraught as he shows us travel documents belonging to his group members, recounting which of them has died en route. However, a scene in which the director pretends to swap travel documents with a refugee contrasts uncomfortably with this, as does Weiwei’s description of Human Flow in Q&As after the premiere as his ‘personal journey’. Human Flow’s most effective moments are, as others have noted, those that focus on individuals. However, such moments abound in often superb, far less expansive and, importantly, far less expensive documentary shorts, such as those showcased at Sheffield Doc/Fest this year and last. In contrast to those, Human Flow’s expansiveness and artistry leaves me troubled. Happy End is less expansive and its commentary on migration less all-encompassing, but what it does say, as is often the case with Haneke, packs one hell of a punch. Rather than focusing on, and making a spectacle of, migrants, Happy End is about a wealthy French family in Calais, who employ immigrants in their home and their family business. The family’s oldest son, Pierre, ruptures the film’s narrative as much as his family’s when he goes to visit the family of a worker injured whilst Pierre was in charge; makes a startling announcement about his family’s ‘slave’ at a family party, and latterly brings immigrant workers along to disrupt his mother’s engagement party. These moments are compelling enough, but the wealth of filmic and related references they evoke make them all the more powerful. Echoing Sarah-Jane’s parody of a slave-girl in Douglas Sirk’s splendidly socially astute 1959 melodrama, Imitation of Life, for instance, and echoing Patricia Rozema’s 2000 re-telling of Mansfield Park, in which the family’s complicity in the slave trade is dramatised, Happy End has much to say about race, migration and capitalism’s racist exploitation of ‘other’ countries, both in the present and across history, as well as national boundaries. The relationship between Rozema’s Mansfield Park and Happy End is somewhat remarkable in fact, whether deliberate or not. The focus on a young girl sent to live with rich relatives is an obvious, if darkly inflected, focal point, as is her relationship with the oldest son (Pierre/Tom) and the controlled eruptions of an awareness of racial violence and exploitation into very well-to-do homes built on precisely such exploitation. Both films, in my view, work extremely well to make us think about our own relationship to capitalism and its violent and exploitative approach to human life. In their own way too, Paul King’s Paddington films do the same, if in a far fluffier, child-friendly way. Paddington is, after all, a self-confessed stowaway who ‘shouldn’t be here at all’. And he’s from ‘darkest Peru’. But the Browns take him in, with the audience encouraged, in a deliberate affront to UKIP, to view the character who wants to send him away as an ‘illegal alien’ as very much the baddie. In many ways, the focus of these films on ‘us’ – families in the West and our benefit from the exploitation and othering of ‘others’ – is potentially more effective at motivating change than sometimes-harrowing films about migrants and their suffering. After all, it’s abundantly clear, time and time again, that sharing images of the distant suffering of others does not necessarily make for change. But bringing others into our homes – into our narratives, into our social and familial space – tends to create more concrete awareness about the plight of others, and so for more genuine change.


STEPHAN ELLIOTT, 2018 OUT 18 JANUARY 2018 A celebration of Australian culture that also, so the previews promise, drives a critical stake into its heart, this film has plenty to offer, including Kylie Minogue. Focusing on three families in the synthetics-loving 70s, ostensibly told from the viewpoint of a 14-year-old aspiring filmmaker, this films sounds like raucous comedy at its saddening best. Link


MARTIN MCDONAGH, 2018 FROM 12 JANUARY | SHOWROOM CINEMA With an exceptional cast, this film is about a mother (Frances McDormand) who, angry at the police’s failings, takes matters into her own hands by demanding attention. It looks to be a tense, impressive experience. The performances of McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell have critics excited, even if they express some reservations about McDonagh’s treatment of vengeance. Link


AGNIESZKA HOLLAND, 1990 25 JANUARY | 8PM | SHOWROOM CINEMA | £8.80/£6.60 A special screening (with an introduction and discussion concerning memory and forgetting) of this incredible film dramatising the real-life tale of a young Jewish boy who, separated from his family during early in World War 2, escaped the Holocaust by concealing his identity and being drafted into Hitler’s army. Link )
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