From Film: Feature

Migration and the Culture of Anguish

Lotte’s mother: How did you know it was me?
Nejat Aksu: You are the saddest person here.

Nejat Aksu and Susanne Staub in The Edge of Heaven; film still

In his film, The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite, 2008), Turkish-German filmmaker, Fatih Akin foregrounds pain, loss, and the pathos of brief encounters through three intertwined narratives that touch each other, one might say, at “the edges.” The three episodes (Yeter’s Death; Lotte’s Death; and The Edge of Heaven) are laid out side by side, as one might do with pieces of cloth to be stitched together, with one edge slightly overlapping the one next to it. The film’s “episodic” structure underscores at once the peripheral nature of social interactions in migrant and transnational spaces, as well as the inevitability of human contact, albeit via grief and suffering. How the one connects with the other may be the fundamental question of our time. Akin’s film reminds us that a commitment to mobility and abstract affiliations in a networked age must rub up against an awareness of those immediately around us and the efforts one must make in the here and now to see that “other side” (the meaning of the film’s German title). Not that The Edge of Heaven is a meditation on technological mediations of presence; rather, its visual and thematic currency is visceral and anguished in a direct sort of way. Death, that most inscrutable of occurrences, serves to stitch events and characters’ lives together. So the anguish we see on screen, and feel as we watch, has many layers. But Akin’s tour de force is that he brings us to a reckoning of the world we live in (marked by bigotry, anger, murder, deportation, incarceration) without collapsing into negativity and rage. Rather, he focuses on what connects us as humans and the need to open ourselves up to the pain of the other. And sometimes it takes death to provide sustenance to the living.

The cinema of migration is a genre in the making, and its parameters are still uncertain. Elements from the thriller, violent crime, melodrama, science fiction, and social realism genres all find their space in its capacious folds. Migrant journeys, especially of the illegal variety, form a major thematic and narrative arc within this output, as these lend themselves to dramatic situations and visually-compelling scenarios. Migrant characters evoke pity as they struggle with poverty, exploitation, and the ever-present fear of being discovered and returned to their homeland. Issues of identity and belonging are also prominent in migration films, documentary and feature. The film scholar Hamid Naficy has written about an “accented cinema” in which exiled filmmakers develop a special cinematic language that speaks to their own unique situation. More appropriate, though, for contemporary filmmakers addressing the issue of migration in either direct or oblique ways may be the notion of “double occupancy” advanced by film historian and scholar Thomas Elsaesser. This idea recognizes the always already dual emotional and psychological space that migrants inhabit. In the case of Fatih Akin, however, one gets the sense that even the awareness of double occupancy might be too limiting, and that filmmakers are better off exploring the “redemptive” possibilities in the contingent, the unfamiliar, even the bizarre.

The story, when stated in summary, can seem overwrought and extravagant: a young man of Turkish origin named Nejat Aksu is raised by his widower father and the two live in Hamburg where Nejat has a job at the university teaching German literature. The older Aksu invites a prostitute, Yeter Ozturk, to live with him to relieve his loneliness but ends up killing her in a jealous rage. Yeter has a daughter, Ayten, who has escaped to Hamburg from Istanbul because of her involvement with a radical group. Here she meets a German student, Lotte, and the two fall in love. But Ayten is brought back to Istanbul to stand trial, and Lotte follows to be close to her and secure her release. She is, however, a victim of senseless violence and is gunned down by a young assailant in the street. Before her sudden end, Lotte has met and rented a room from Nejat who is now the owner of a German bookstore in the heart of Istanbul. Lotte’s mother, Susanne Staub, comes to Istanbul to find the reason for her daughter’s death, meeting Nejat in a hotel lobby where they exchange the lines quoted above in the epigraph. What follows is the gradual transcendence of the main characters’ limited understandings of self and other.

These connections become objects of overt symbolism in the film. As Yeter’s coffin makes its way, on the airport tarmac, from Hamburg to Istanbul, Lotte’s coffin is shown going in the opposite direction, going “home” from Istanbul to Hamburg. In another scene, as Nejat’s father appears at a train window to buy a ticket following his deportation order from Germany, we catch a glimpse of Lotte’s mother Susanne who is also leaving for Istanbul, following the death of her daughter there. Repetitions abound, as though all life is circular. When we first see Nejat teaching in a classroom, the camera pans to a student collapsed on her desk, fast asleep. Towards the end of the film, the same scene is repeated, only this time we recognize the girl as Ayten and know why she is asleep in this unlikely place. And in Istanbul, Nejat and Lotte’s lives briefly intersect, thus making it possible for her mother to seek him out and know him as well. 

The movement through space, which is an essential aspect of migration, cannot fail to raise questions of cinematic belonging for Akin himself. He has been known to identify as “a classical filmmaker” rather than an ethnically-marked or immigrant one. Such self-positioning must be placed against the backdrop of a long history of debate about what constitutes German cinema within Germany itself, and while this is not the place to get into that historical question, it is doubtful that Akin is unaware of it. However, what strikes me as significant is that The Edge of Heaven moves this old-new debate along (now also taking the form of defining “Europe”) from its association with physical borders to an association with people as individuals capable of change and growth in a way that nation-spaces are not. In other words, physical borders between Germany and Turkey are crossed so often as to become meaningless, and the focus shifts to the characters as they become dis-integrated from their countries of origin. “Culture” is no longer what we inherit but what we open ourselves to. The family is no longer the source of one’s cultural belonging. In each of the three narrative strands, family bonds are sharply broken: Nejat rejects his father because of his crime; Lotte leaves her mother to go after the woman she loves, despite Susanne’s remonstrances; Yeter and Ayten, mother and daughter, never meet in the film. In each case, the characters who remain alive  have to regain or reconstitute familial ties through anguish and loss.

Akin’s film is a symphony about death, life, and resurrection but not in a religious sense; it has no use for Christianity or Islam. Rather, by blurring the distinctions between ‘host’ and ‘guest’, ‘migrant’ and ‘native’, he presents these positions as malleable and mutually illuminating.
-by Sumita Chakravarty

List of Films on Migration


The Undocumented

In the middle


I learn America

The State of Arizona

Your day is my Night

Eternity and a day

The Cloud Capped Star

The Golden Thread

The Name of a River 



Ali: Fear eats the soul

Black Girl 

Lilya 4-ever 

I don’t want to sleep alone 

The Secret of the Grain

Last Resort 

La Promese 

It’s a free world


In Between Days

Death by Hanging

Golden Door 

The Visitor

No Fear, No Die

Reminiscences of a journey to Lithuania

Latcho Drom 

Lorna’s Silence

Top 10 Films on Immigration

Immigration is one of the more complicated issues facing Americans these days and sadly we don’t see or hear about it very often. Below is a list of 10 great films that explore immigration. Some are more serious documentaries while others are narratives that incorporate some of the more human and historic issues of immigration. Here’s blogger, Gina Telaroli from top 10 immigration films. (This list is in no particular order)

1. Well Founded Fear

This 2000 documentary is an unprecedented inside look at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), award-winning filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini take their cameras behind locked doors, where bureaucrats decide the fates of thousands of asylum-seekers each year. To be granted asylum, applicants must demonstrate a “well-founded fear” that their lives would be endangered were they to be deported.The asylum-seekers are at once hopeful and heartbreaking, at times too slick and polished, and in other cases painfully timid. All have the same desire–freedom to stay in America. As asylum officers struggle to determine credibility, balancing sympathy with good sense and tough-mindedness, their hard-made decisions ultimately hold a mirror to the broader, quickly changing, and controversial role of the United States in the world at large.

2. Man Push Cart


Every night while the city sleeps, Ahmad, a former rock star in his native Pakistan, drags his heavy cart along the streets of New York. And every morning, he sells coffee and donuts to a city he cannot call his own. One day, the pattern of this harsh existence is broken by a glimmer of hope for a better life. This independent film was released in September 2005 and was directed by Ramin Bahrani.

3. In Between Days

A quiet specimen of personal storytelling at its most exciting, In Between Days intimately portrays the joys and risks of first love and burgeoning adulthood with bracing and undeniable honesty. Aimie (Jiseon Kim) is a teenager recently transplanted from her native South Korea to a snowbound North American city. Disconnected from her single mother and bored at school, she struggles to find her way in a strange land of new faces, only to encounter a strange age of new feelings. Directed by So Yong Kim and the film premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It was released into select theaters on June 27, 2007.

4. Lost Boys of Sudan

Lost Boys of Sudan follows two teenage Sudanese refugees on an extraordinary journey from Africa to America offering a gripping and sobering peek into the myth of the American Dream. In the late 80s Islamic fundamentalists in Sudan waged war on the country s separatists leaving behind over 20000 male orphans otherwise known as “lost boys.” For those who survived this traumatic ordeal and found their way to refugee camps some were chosen to participate in a resettlement program in America a distant place so presumably full of hope and opportunity that the Sudanese sometimes call it Heaven. But what if a free ticket to “Heaven” turned out to be anything but? Sidestepping conventional voice-over narration in favor of real-time close-quarters poignancy Lost Boys of Sudan focuses on Santino and Peter members of the Dinka tribe during their first life-altering year in the United States. Safe at last from physical danger but a world away from home the boys must grapple with extreme cultural differences as they come to understand both the abundance and alienation of contemporary American life.

5. Fast Food Nation

Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear)-a marketing executive at Mickey’s Fast Food Restaurant chain, home of “The Big One”-has a problem. Contaminated meat is getting into the frozen patties of the company’s best-selling burger. To find out why, he’ll have to take a journey to the dark side of the All-American meal. Leaving the cushy confines of the company’s Southern California boardroom for the immigrant-staffed slaughterhouses, teeming feedlots and cookie cutter strip malls of Middle America, what Don discovers is a “Fast Food Nation” of consumers who haven’t realized it is they who are being consumed by an industry with a seemingly endless appetite for fresh meat. Directed by Richard Linklater.

6. In America 


From Academy Award Nominee Jim Sheridan comes this deeply personal and poignant tale of a poor Irish family searching for a better life In America. Through the eyes of their spunky daughters, two anguished parents find hope and the ability to once again believe in love and magic”even amidst the dangers of New York’s harrowing Hell’s Kitchen. With mesmerizing performances by Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou, In America is “a classic” you won’t ever forget.

7. The Godfather Part II 

Francis Ford Coppola took some of the deep background from the life of Mafia chief Vito Corleone–the patriarch of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel The Godfather–and built around it a stunning sequel to his Oscar-winning, 1972 hit film. Robert De Niro plays Vito as a young Sicilian immigrant in turn-of-the-century New York City’s Little Italy. Coppola weaves in and out of the story of Vito’s transformation into a powerful crime figure, contrasting that evolution against efforts by son Michael Corleone to spread the family’s business into pre-Castro Cuba.

8. The House of Sand and Fog 


Academy Award winners Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) deliver stunning performances as two strangers whose conflicting pursuits of the American Dream lead to a fight for their hopes at any cost. What begins as a struggle over a rundown bungalow spirals into a clash that propels everyone involved toward a shocking resolution.

9. My American Dream, How Democracy Works Now

The documentary contains multiple, in-depth portraits that are weaved together to illustrate the full-blown social movement. It offers a window into the process of social change in a democracy, into the roots of immigration’s place in our culture and national identity and into the ability of the machinery of political life in the United States to address fundamental issues. Camerini and Robertson gained unprecedented access on the Capital Hill. From US senators and congressmen and their very private staffs, to high ranking union leaders, lobbyists and grass-roots crusaders on both sides of the issue, they taped private deliberations and the most intimate of strategy sessions. The highly unusual combination of access and expansive time frame, in conjunction with the intimacy with so many key figures who appear on screen, make our project the most in-depth backstage recording of a social process ever attempted.

10. Stranger Than Paradise 

Rootless Hungarian émigré Willie (John Lurie), his pal Eddie (Richard Edson), and visiting sixteen-year-old cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) always manage to make the least of any situation, whether aimlessly traversing the drab interiors and environs of New York City, Cleveland, or an anonymous Florida suburb. With its delicate humor and dramatic nonchalance, Jim Jarmusch’s one-of-a-kind minimalist masterpiece, Stranger Than Paradise, forever transformed the landscape of American independent cinema.