Documentary essayist Philip Scheffner’s Europe may be a work of fiction (his first in feature length), but only in the sense that it contains a structured narrative built around the lived experience of its lead actress, Rhim Ibrir. Ibrir’s life is closely mirrored in that of the protagonist Zohra Hamadi, a young Algerian woman on the cusp of recovery from severe scoliosis, the same condition which affects Ibrir, in Western France. Ibrir previously contributed to Scheffner’s documentary essay Havarie, about a group of refugees adrift in the Med in an inflatable dinghy. Like Zohra, Rhim is separated from her husband who can’t visit her from Algeria due to lack of papers, and this storyline was featured in Havarie.
Scheffner and screenwriter Merle Kröger effectively build a sense of cautious optimism in the opening scenes of the film on what is shown rather than said. As Zohra’s voiceover in the opening states, “It’s not the kind of film that tells you what to do, because the story says so.” After leaving a doctor’s appointment where she’s told she no longer needs surgery, Zohra takes the bus on her usual route home, where she takes the seat with the little blue and white disabled access sign, until an elderly woman with a walking stick embarks and politely mentions that the seat is only for disabled access, and Zohra pleasantly gives up her seat. She once needed it, and habit may have led her to sit there, but her life has now changed, for the better. It’s this emotionless portrayal of small, quiet victories which eloquently sets up the trajectory of trauma which comes to plague Zohra’s life.
The benevolent state which France and other wealthy post-colonial European nations hold in high self-regard dissolves when it emerges that, since Zohra is now in recovery, she has lost her right to stay in France and is to be sent back to Algeria. The bus scene, ever so polite, identifies a world where Zohra is expected to give up what was always temporary, even if unbeknownst to her. Zohra was always journeying to but never quite arriving in Europe, even as the bus drops her at a stop that is, in the real-life town of Châtellerault, quite literally called Europe.
After Zohra receives this news, Scheffner makes the pointed decision to temporarily erase her, not from the story, but from screen presence. Instead, we see neighbours, friends and state officials talking at a fixed point offscreen where Zohra is imagined to be standing, punctuated with pauses representing Zohra’s responses which are neither seen nor heard.
Scheffner is a self-aware filmmaker, wary of what he describes as a “reflex” by the media to humanise the stories of refugees and immigrants for a well-meaning but politically limited European audience. His decision to vanish Zohra from her own story is a deliberate rejection of news stories and documentaries which forcefully construct adulatory narratives of tragedy and hope, to instead showcase the brutal reality for a woman in Zohra’s position. As a disabled woman from North Africa she is rendered completely voiceless and powerless at the hands of an indifferent system, and the narrative decision to vanish her reiterates this, rather than resorting to heart-tugging cinematic techniques.
This attitude is present in the camerawork too. It’s interesting to note the difference in style from a film like the Dardennes’ Deux jours une nuit (2014), which features a (white) French female protagonist, played by Marion Cotillard, who also must fight to preserve her social security after a health crisis. There, the camera is handheld and frequently follows her footsteps, matching her pace and spurring her onwards in her quest with its momentum. In Europe, the camera makes no such benevolent gestures for Zohra. It remains passively neutral, always capturing the scene from one fixed point, allowing the narrative to speak loudly for itself instead of building sentimentality. In the aftermath of receiving the news that her residency in France is terminated, Zohra happens upon an official memorial service for the Algerians who sided with the coloniser in the French-Algerian war. The announcer talks of their sacrifice, and how France will always make known its gratitude, as Zohra stonily watches from amongst the small crowd gathered. The local government officer in charge of her case tells her there’s nothing he can do and goes for a cigarette break with his colleague, who calmly but pointedly questions his decision to hire ‘an Arab’ to care for his ailing father while they chat. Racism and imperialism are glaringly exposed in the cracks of a system that purports to care while failing those who are vulnerable, always reflected in Zohra’s calm but long-suffering gaze.
Europe does away with asking its audience for sympathy and instead creates an experience where a more privileged viewership can understand what powerlessness looks, feels, and sounds like, in the plainest of terms. Rhim Ibrir’s life mirrored Zohra’s to the extent that it directly affected the filming process after her residency permit was rescinded, and the finished product is a mutual pact between Scheffner, Kröger and Ibrir to tell her story honestly and directly.