Bright Lights Film Journal

“The World of the Road Is a State of Exception”: Boris Lojkine’s Hope Explores the World of African Migrants

Endurance Newton and Justin Wang in Hope

Hope is the title, half ironic, half resolutely sincere, of a stunning film about African migrants trekking across a continent’s most forbidding landscapes to reach the promised land of Europe. After winning a Semaine de la Critique prize at Cannes (it was also nominated for the Camera d’Or), and making the rounds of festivals around the world, the film was released in France in January, in partnership with Amnesty International.

Hope is one of the few films about undocumented immigrants to avoid treating the subject simply as a problem to dissect or debate. Instead, it immerses the viewer in the migrant experience (part of the title’s irony is that actual arrival in Europe is never shown). The film tells the story of a Nigerian woman named Hope, who meets Justin, a Cameroonian, on the long trip to the Mediterranean crossing into Spain. Through many adventures and tribulations, Hope (Endurance Newton) and Léonard (Justin Wang) form an odd but loving couple. Their relationship never quite resolves itself, one example of the film’s convention busting (another is that the characters were played by non-actors, who come from the migrant’s no-man’s-land themselves).

Boris Lojkine

The film was directed by Boris Lojkine, a globe-trotting French philosopher-turned-filmmaker. Lojkine is a lean, youthful-looking man with a calm expression and large, observant eyes. Sitting in a café overlooking the Place de la Nation in Paris he seemed relaxed, though not completely in his element. Lojkine is in the tradition of French intellectuals such as Theodore Monod, Jean Rouch, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose curiosity takes them to the remotest corners of the planet.

Lojkine’s passion for his subject doesn’t come from merely intellectual interest. While he grew up in the French establishment and attended elite schools, his family roots lay well beyond Paris limits. His grandfather was a Russian soldier who, after serving on the losing side of the Russian civil war, had to seek refuge in France via boat, just like the characters in Lojkine’s film. His grandmother was a Polish Jew who also left her homeland. While she never faced the dire difficulties of Hope, she was also never able to fulfill her dream of pursuing her studies.

The director has a soft, low-key voice, but speaks rapidly when he gets onto the subject of his film. Lojkine says that he wanted to treat the subject of migration in a way that balanced documentary realism and melodrama, adding that in France melodrama isn’t necessarily pejorative.

“That is, melodrama as in Douglas Sirk.”

In other words, not Manichean good vs. evil showdowns but the film of sentiment and emotion, expressing the full sense of the French word triste, which connotes more than merely “sad.” Hope is tragic, but also tender, especially regarding women.

“Women are relatively rare in the world of clandestine migrants,” Lojkine says. “Among those few who are there, prostitution and sexual abuse are nearly universal.”

During the writing process the script developed from a general treatment of African migrants to a story about men and women. This isn’t the intellectualized approach one might have expected from a normalien (graduate of the elite Ecole Normale Supérieur). While working on his doctoral thesis at the University of Aix-en-Provence, Lojkine taught philosophy in the university and in a lycée. He decided that academic life was not for him. Ironically, it was a teaching assignment that enabled him to leave academia and travel to Vietnam in 1993. He had several sojourns there, fascinated by the excitement of a society in ferment after what locals called “the American War.”

“I learned Vietnamese, which enabled me to interact with people as I travelled throughout the country. They ranged from former ministers, students, Hmong tribesmen, to garage owners.”

Lojkine says that the experience of living there changed his life. He not only spoke Vietnamese but dreamed in the language, and became imbued with “the tastes, the odors, the beauty of the women, the avenues of Hanoi at 3 am after drinking a last tra da (iced tea) with workers on the night shift, the misty mountain trails climbing towards the Chinese border. . . . Whenever I see an intense green, I think of the rice fields and feel a stab in my heart. It’s not an experience you can repeat at will. You’re only 25 years old once.”

He also met people with a particular problem: their loved ones had died fighting in the war but their bodies were never recovered. His film Des Ames Errants (Wandering Souls) told their story, especially one woman searching for her husband. He’d had no filmmaking experience, and shot the film in digital with a crew consisting of two assistants. He later made a second documentary in Vietnam. Making the films constituted a break from philosophy and a move to documentary filmmaking – from abstract to concrete reality.

Lojkine followed his Vietnam experience with trips to Africa. In 2008, he went to the Democratic Republic of Congo, visiting Kinshasa and Kisingani. He found a country mired in corruption and social dislocation. On the other hand, he was able to get by in French, the former colonial language.

There were two long stays in the Congo rain forest, remote areas where foreigners had not set foot for thirty years. He originally planned a documentary on the Pygmies and how they’d been affected by the forestry industry.

“Though I was often the first European ever seen by many locals, and would be surrounded by hundreds of villagers, I wasn’t as harassed as I might have been in countries with a thriving tourist trade.”

Lojkine was confronted by the wounds wrought by the recent wars in the country. He started working on a documentary about the Mai Mai, the anti-Rwandan nationalist militias created in the late 1990s. Lojkine went to villages in the forest where Mai-Mai rebels were active. The rebels saw themselves as nationalists resisting incursions by Rwanda, but they’d descended into banditry and poaching, and were often despised by other Congolese. The documentary project foundered – and he also wound up having equipment stolen by a Congolese friend, an aspiring director.

“The Congo is an incredibly cinégenic country, but very hard. Relations with people were difficult, because of the precariousness of their lives, and because they see Europeans as a source of money. It’s nearly impossible to surmount that, and it was exhausting. But that wasn’t the reason I didn’t complete the film. It was simply that I was transitioning as a filmmaker, from documentary to fiction.”

It was in the Congo that he began to get the idea for another film set on the African continent, a feature film this time. He got interested in the subject of migrants, and read newspapers, anthropological studies, first-person accounts, Internet sources.

Despite the journalistic and ethnographic research, Lojkine says that the difference between his Vietnamese and African experiences comes down to the difference between fiction and documentary. Even if he gave Hope a documentary look, the filming process wasn’t the same.

“Aside from scenes shot in the Gourougou forest, and a fire ritual, there are no real documentary sequences in the film,” he said. “The boundary between fiction and documentary can be crossed from one side or the other – to give a fiction-like dimension to the real, or else to search for the real within the fictional framework.”

The director maintains that the difference lies more in the process than in the result. In his documentaries he searched for the story in the filming. In fiction the story is imposed, which Lojkine admits represents a kind of violence. Afterwards, during the filming, it was necessary to re-find the real.

“One can go more or less far in this approach. In my case it was rather far, first in choosing non-professional actors, who brought elements that were not in the script, that I could never have written, then by providing space for improvisation.”

Lojkine was interested in the epic quality of the subject. There was the notion of an odyssey – crossing deserts and oceans, meeting unknown people who might seem as bizarre to the migrants as giants. The director was particularly interested in the idea of people crossing a threshold point, like the threshold in the mythical journey, past which they become clandestins (the word translates roughly as “illegals,” as in “illegal aliens,” but also has the sense of outlaws or rebels living underground). That may be why he excised scenes in the film in which Léonard and Hope speak about their origins.

Lojkine says that while the script is very “written” (i.e., deliberately crafted), there was some improvisation in the dialogue itself, in addition to the performances. Moreover, general ideas could change, based on the director’s perception of the reality of the situation. Casting was crucial for the film.

“Justin was a footballer. Though he has a student-like air, he was very physical, a person who’d begin stammering when expressing himself. Like his character, he’s from Cameroon, but was in Morocco playing soccer. Endurance came from a poor background, and had been sent to Morocco to prostitute herself.”

The film features two godfathers reigning over migration way-stations, who refer to themselves as “chairmen” (the film includes many African-inflected English words). Lojkine recruited locals from the migrant milieu to play these parts. The first, a Cameroonian, wasn’t actually a chairman but the blustering “chief” of a residence housing migrants, who held a technician hostage before being given the role. On the other hand, the second, a Nigerian, was played by a real chairman. This reflected the different realities of the migrant communities portrayed. According to Lojkine, there was a sharp difference between Cameroonian and Nigerian ghettos.

“In the Cameroonian ghetto there’s some violence and the abuse of power, but it stays relatively soft, on the level of street-fights between gangs. With the Nigerians, one enters a real Mafia-type organization. They’re dangerous, capable of killing – many already have. And they’re the ones who hold the key to safe passage to Europe.”

More than the violence per se, the director was interested in depicting the internal organization of the world of clandestine migrants.

“We always see their interactions with the authorities, soldiers, and human traffickers, but not what happens amongst themselves. It’s a parallel world which is necessarily violent, because it’s outside any legal space. I was interested in showing the power relations that get established and the strategies of survival.”

Lojkine says that it was necessary to keep a certain reserve. He couldn’t claim to have access to the private selves of the characters as he might have in a conventional French psychological film.

“I didn’t want to tell the characters what their thoughts and feelings were, because it would have been false. Having to stay reserved isn’t uninteresting. It opens a path to other types of scenes, to the performance of the actors, as in Italian neo-realism.”

Formally trained French actors too often rely on what Lojkine calls a code de jeu – an established way of emoting that becomes ingrained and automatic. Similarly, he wanted to get away from French subtlety. His film was low-budget (a film pauvre – an “impoverished film”) and had radically different needs. What the director wanted from these non-actors was a quality that was fundamental and larger than life, “massive.”

In response to a question about the filmmaker’s responsibility to the actors, Lojkine is circumspect. Endurance was paid for the role, but the money quickly disappeared, going to family and friends. She now lives in a room in Casablanca, where at last report she was begging.

“I don’t have the power to get them a visa to come to Europe. And even if they came here, what would they do? I contacted a few agents here, and checked around on their behalf, but I’m not sure there’s a future in the cinema for them.”

Justin returned to Cameroon after the film. In fact, Lojkine helped him to obtain a passport, and is now helping him to return to Morocco legally. While Endurance has remained in Morocco, Lojkine believes that she won’t stay there forever.

“There’s nothing for her there. She might get into a boat to cross over to Europe. I feel afraid for her.”

One of the challenges in making the film was that, except for five French crew members, no one had any professional experience. Another challenge was the ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity of both cast and crew. Endurance and Justin are Christians, while one Cameroonian technician was a Muslim. Communication on the set was in French, except with Endurance, who as a Nigerian spoke English. (On top of everything else, Endurance had a one-year-old baby in tow.)

“We spent five months in Morocco. Financing came from the CNC (the French film board) and the distributor, Pyramide. TV5 helped out, as it’s very present in Africa.”

Lojkine was initially afraid of “Nigerian bandits,” but relations were ironically better with them than with other cast and crew.

“They had a sense of hierarchy, would greet me with ‘Good morning, sir,’ or ‘Hello, my director.’ With the Nigerian chairman we only had to rehearse once.”

The Cameroonian chairman was less disciplined, if more imaginative. Every take was completely different, driving the crew to distraction. Often they had to negotiate with him, especially scenes which touched on religion.

“He was strangely religious,” says Lojkine, “and he had to be convinced to express this in the film. It may have had to do with a conversion experience. He called himself Suleiman, but it turned out his real name was Bertrand.”

Religion has an enormous place in African life, with a fervor that has mostly disappeared from the West. But this isn’t what Lojkine shows in his film. Instead, he depicts religious practices that have become instrumentalized into tools of control.

“The scene in which Hope and Léonard undergo a sham wedding shows how deranged the Cameroonian chairman is, with his dreams of being a pastor for his community. His religious speech is a kind of delirium, but also an envelope for his domination.”

In the same way, the fire ritual, a vaudou-like scene of animal sacrifice, is less interesting for its religiosity as for the way it imposes group terror.

“There was one scene of genuine religious feeling, a beautiful scene of religious fervor in a clandestine Nigerian church in a cave in Rabat, but unfortunately it had to be cut.”

While filming, the idea had to feel right, which is why Lojkine was willing to change his original plans. Above all, the director insisted on the optimal balance of realism and drama.

“I didn’t want a linear A to B structure. There had to be a central defining question. Here it was a calling into question ‘masculine humanity.’ The surface question was ‘Will Léonard abandon her?’ We identify more with Hope, but the point of view is Léonard’s, so he’s the main character.”

Inhabiting this character was something the non-actor playing him had to work out. There is a scene in which the director appears, playing a Western tourist who buys Hope’s sexual services, only to be mugged by Léonard. At the beginning it was a typical Hitchcockian cameo, but it wound up being a key moment in the filming.

“Justin had felt blocked to a great degree, very stressed, wondering why he’d been chosen. He may have felt negative, bottled-up feelings towards me. In this scene he took total pleasure in attacking the tourist character, and the effect was to ‘de-block’ him.”

Another issue concerned the film’s ending. Lojkine didn’t want a conventional happy end. The last scene takes place on a boat that the migrants have boarded to cross the sea to Spain. It was filmed in long takes, at night, with no dialogue. The ending ironically became easier to film because of a real, though less lethal, affliction.

“Everyone got seasick during the shoot, with the exception of Justin, who had great fun at the expense of his less fortunate co-star,” says Lojkine. “By then they were like brother and sister.”

What would have happened to the protagonists if they’d arrived in Europe together?

“A stay in a detention center, followed by expulsion back to their country of origin. At best, they would have passed through the net and wound up in a big French city, a room, a search for low-paid jobs. How can this be seen as a happy end?”

Lojkine’s obsessive attention to detail extended to the music. For the soundtrack he decided on a Canadian “post-rock” ensemble called Set Fire to Flames. He didn’t want typical Western movie music, but felt a world music soundtrack would have been inauthentic.

“The people where we shot don’t listen to what the West calls world music.”

His choice intentionally displaces the atmosphere in the film. While the director wanted a maximum of intense emotion, he realized that this could become oppressive. Lojkine chose music that would let the film, and the audience, breathe on occasion (in fact, the musical interludes are relatively sparse).

Lojkine frequently uses the word “epic” to describe the narrative and characters. Does the epic quality of Hope relate to some normative ideal?

“I don’t think that the epic has to contain an ideal. The epic is when characters traverse something greater than their own lives. In the film there is the dream of Europe, an immense hope. It keeps the characters going through all the vicissitudes of the road. All migrants are supported by that hope beyond reason. They put everything else in brackets – themselves, their feelings, their morality. That’s why a man in Gourougou says: ‘Think that you’re already dead and that it’s your ghost that’s walking.’ I think that corresponds profoundly with what migrants feel on the road. Only the goal counts. One does what one would never do elsewhere, in the normal world. The world of the road is a state of exception.”

He admits that an ideal eventually comes out in the story. The film can be distilled into how in a brutal world dominated by violence, a pure gesture can emerge: “A man extends his hand to a woman.” At the beginning, what counts for Léonard is to arrive at the end of his trip, and to achieve that he’s ready for anything. A woman appears in the middle of the road, and she makes him question the code he has been living by. . . . Ultimately his relationship with Hope becomes more important than the journey, more important than his own life. She forces him to admit his humanity. If he’d abandoned her, he would have denied that part of himself.”

Boris Lojkine will spend a year promoting his film. Debates and panel discussions are being organized around its release in France. Two future projects seem to echo Hope. One is a film about Nigerian gangsters operating in Moroccan and Algerian ghettos, with characters similar to the “chairmen.” He describes the second project as a Western set in Amazonia, featuring a tribe of Indians untouched by civilization, until they are set upon by rapacious loggers and ranchers.

“If there were Indians in France, then I’d direct the film in France. It would simplify my life! I’ve had a fascination for indigenous peoples for a very long time.”

Whenever he could during his travels, Lojkine would take his motorbike and head for the mountains, sleep in the villages of those considered “ethnic minorities” in their own countries: the Hmong, Thai, Dao. His first project after Wandering Souls was a film about people living in the Vietnamese central highlands, just as he was later drawn to the Pygmies in Congo.

“My interest in Amazonia is the shock between our world and a people who haven’t had any contact with us. The shift to fiction in Hope gave me wings, and taught me that one shouldn’t be content with what is easiest, but go to the opposite extreme – the material that is strongest. I don’t know anything about Brazil, but I’ll learn.”

Lojkine feels drawn to the greater world outside Europe and the West in general, and he can be harsh about the French auteur film, as he defines it:

“A naturalistic, psychological drama with weak story-telling values, with an attention to detail, subtlety in the scenes, complexity in the characters. Bof. It doesn’t really excite me. It’s my feeling that France is small and old, that the world is out there – in China, Iran, Brazil. Though I do hope that there’s something worth filming in France outside of the petit cinéma that turns in circles.”

While Lojkine wants to eventually move beyond the themes he’s treated in Hope, one thing is certain. He doesn’t see himself making quiet little intimiste films any more than he sees himself as an academic teaching philosophy.

Note: All photos courtesy of Pyramide Films and director Boris Lojkine.