When looking for helpful information on a screen at Austria’s Federal Asylum Office, you are greeted with the melody of “The Blue Danube.” “Remember that smugglers are only interested in money, not in you as a human being.” This, in all seriousness, is the first recommendation given. This scene from Nina Kusturica’s “Little Alien” not only demonstrates clearly that the truth is stranger than fiction; in its detached anonymity, the screen also shows the dark side of this documentary. The actions of a state that only knows how to administrate refugees is contrasted with an emphatic look at underage asylum seekers, a look informed by an awareness of everyone’s individuality, without however limiting itself to sympathy.

One could say that Kusturica’s work conforms to orthodox documentary conventions: The refugee is not turned into a figure in such a way that one’s humanistic persuasion can be put on display. He or she remains a “naked individual,” a person who, before the eyes of the patient observer, is given their concrete image back—precarious though it might be.

In the concrete realization, this means above all accompanying them circumspectly, which is less important during their flight than in the period between the submission of their application and the granting (or rejection) of asylum. This is a zone of uncertainty in which each type of status, each sense of having arrived and—most importantly—each sense of safety is only temporary. Asha and Nura, two young women from Somalia, and Alem and Jawid, two young men from Afghanistan, represent the two pairs of figures around whom Kusturica documents a form of normality under abnormal conditions.

At an accelerated pace her observations coalesce to portray a passage to an uncertain destination. In consultations with legal advisors the extreme difficulty of assessing the application process becomes obvious—a state of disorientation that the film does more to underline than overcome. “Little Alien” is permitted to accompany its protagonists only to the doors behind which their fate is decided. The power of bureaucracy remains outside the frame. Kusturica was not permitted to film in government offices.

This empty space is filled with other material which is made more impressive by the fact that it does not employ conventional victim templates. When we watch Asha und Nura, who find a place to stay temporarily at Camp Traiskirchen, we witness an “upside-down” reality: Perspectives are widened or otherwise shifted, stereotypes are torn down by the scenes shown. One example: At the train station the girls are harassed by a passerby. They do not understand a word of what he says, and the woman accompanying them explains that the man is expressing his fears of other people through xenophobia. The scene is almost didactic, as it portrays reality and analyzes it simultaneously.

At the same time, there are fleeting moments snatched from their current lives in which the protagonists grow into characters with unmistakable features: During a pleasant get-together, hopes of love and a future manifest themselves, personal background details are revealed—something that Kusturica never forces, because this does not represent vital information. A scene at a charity clothes shop where Asha and Nura are allowed to pick out some things shows for a brief moment the quiet wishes, and this coexists with helpless attempts to intermediate when Alem and Jawid answer questions posed in an Austrian schoolroom, which underlines the social gap that sets them apart.

The main narrative threads in “Little Alien” are defined by spotlighted snapshots featuring other young refugees stuck in the Spanish exclave Ceuta in North Africa, at the harbor of Patras in Greece or in Morocco’s Tangiers. These locations show concretely how a pan-Europe policy of exclusion is applied, which is first manifested in the monitor images at the film’s beginning, in which refugees are indicated merely by a figure that gives off heat as detected by an infrared camera. This cold eye, which does not differentiate, is contrasted with the individuals for whom differences mean everything.

(Dominik Kamalzadeh)