TIFF 2023 | A Happy Day (Hisham Zaman, Norway/Denmark) — Centrepiece

By Gabrielle Marceau

In Hisham Zaman’s A Happy Day, three teenagers in Northern Norway attempt to run away from a centre for asylum seekers. But they haven’t gotten far when they’re discouraged by the insurmountable, snowy mountain between them and freedom. Sitting by the side of the road, they worry about freezing to death. “They’ll come, Abas (Ravand Ali Taha) reassures the others. “They always do.” The three boys—Abas, Ismail (Mohamed Salah), and Hamid (Salah Qadi)—attempt this escape regularly, even though only Abas seems convinced they can make it. The asylum centre keeps their charges until they turn 18 and are old enough to be deported, so their lives in the frigid compound (decked out in an Ikea-esque cheerlessness) are inert with inevitability. It makes thematic sense, then, that the performances are almost affectless (and stylistic sense as well, one only has to look across the border to Aki Kaurismäki)—even their attempts to escape don’t have the thrust of hope, more the unconscious cadence of habit. But unlike a Kaurismäki film—and more like a recent Wes Anderson film—there is no emotional payoff, maybe because the characters seem less trapped in an indifferent political system, than stuck in Zaman’s metaphorical setting (with the looming mountain right outside their windows; the ironic, twee 18th birthday parties; the imaginary lone reindeer that pursues Hamid). The film livens up with the arrival of Aida (Sarah Aman Mentzoni), who’s about to turn 18 but hasn’t succumbed to hopelessness. But even though she’s ultimately taken away, it feels like no one escapes the centre, and the last we see her she’s running in circles around the frozen yard.

gmarceau@cinema-scope.com Marceau Gabrielle