The Dardenne brothers, Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, are Belgian filmmakers who started their careers making documentary movies about labor problems and other social issues, and who moved on, over 20 years ago, to feature films. But while they have made many dramatic films with all kinds of plots – one of their best films, the The Son (2002), looked at the life of a grieving father – their focus has always been on inequality in society and the sufferings of the poor.
In recent years, they have looked at the plight of migrants in Europe, and this is the subject of their latest film, Tori and Lokita, which opens throughout Israel on May 11.
Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Joely Mbundu) are African migrants in Belgium. Tori, who is about 11 and is from Benin, has documents that allow him to stay in Belgium but, in a kind of Catch-22, is not really taken care of by the state. He lost his family on the journey to Europe. Fortunately, he has bonded with Lokita, a young woman who has had herself smuggled to Europe from Cameroon so she can send money home to her family. The two met on a boat from Sicily and have become like brother and sister. But they are not related, and Lokita will only be allowed to stay if she can prove she is Tori’s sister.
In conversations fraught with fear, the two rehearse their stories about where they are from and how they lost their parents, but of course, they do not have a single document proving they are related, so Lokita is constantly subject to deportation.
The threat of deportation
But the threat of deportation is not her only problem. She owes money to an African gang that smuggled her out of Cameroon, the members of which are constantly threatening her. She and Tori eke out a living singing in restaurants, but mostly delivering drugs for a ruthless Belgian gang, who also exploit Lokita sexually.
This is all as bleak as it sounds, but because the actors, both nonprofessionals, are so natural and charming – and clearly have been well directed by the Dardennes – you like them so much that you immediately become engrossed in their story and root for them. They make us believe that they love each other and would do anything for each other.
People like Tori and Lokita have to keep a low profile, so the only way for most people to get to know characters like these is through an article or a movie like this, and a movie makes their story so much more vivid. They break the law by dealing drugs and lying to authorities, certainly, but they do it out of loyalty to their families back home, who are barely surviving, and to each other.
In one memorable scene, Lokita is interviewed by the authorities, who are trying to figure out whether to give her permission to remain legally in the country, and the camera focuses only on her face. It’s reminiscent of a famous scene in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, in which the young hero speaks with a social worker and you only see the boy. As Lokita’s stress and her reactions unfold, you sit on the edge of her seat, hoping desperately that she will say exactly what the authorities want to hear. But like many people who are basically honest, she is not such a good liar.
The story is told through the Dardenne brothers’ trademark neorealist style, and they prove again here that they are worthy successors of the seminal Italian neorealist filmmaker, Vittorio De Sica, who likely would be making movies about migrants if he were alive today.
While many of us are the descendants of immigrants, our forebears, while they may not have had it easy, came to countries like America and Israel, where they could become citizens and find work. The third-world migrants of today in Europe face a very different world, and their lives are much more likely to be short and tragic.
The Dardenne brothers have succeeded, with Tori and Lokita, in putting human faces on those who are usually nameless and anonymous. After seeing this moving, carefully rendered film, you may feel very differently the next time you hear that a boat full of migrants sank on the way to a destination in Western Europe, killing dozens, and you may think of the people who drowned, and of Tori and Lokita.