‘Exile’ Director Visar Morina on Identity and the Immigrant Experience in Germany

Xhafer is a 45-year-old pharmacologist who left Kosovo to live in Germany, where he has a comfortable, middle-class life with his German wife and children. But one day a dead rat mysteriously appears hanging from the garden gate in front of his home, setting off a bizarre series of menacing events. Xhafer believes he’s being targeted by his co-workers because he’s a foreigner, but before long it becomes impossible to tell whether the threats are real, or if he’s become a victim of his own paranoia.

“Exile” is the sophomore feature from Kosovo-born director Visar Morina, whose 2015 debut “Babai” won the best director prize at Karlovy Vary. Starring Mišel Matičević (“Babylon Berlin”) and Sandra Hüller (“Toni Erdmann”), the film premiered in the world cinema dramatic competition in Sundance before playing in Berlin. This week it screens in the official competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival. The Germany-Belgium-Kosovo co-production is produced by Komplizen Film and co-produced by Frakas Productions, Ikonë Studio, WDR, ARTE, VOO, and BeTV. The Match Factory is handling world sales.

Morina’s timely drama comes in the midst of ongoing uncertainty over the plight of millions of refugees in Europe who have fled war in Syria, as well as other political and economic crises. “If we talk about immigrants in Germany…it’s a huge thing right now because there are people making politics and getting power on the back of [this issue],” said the director. “So in a way, I feel I have a responsibility to deal with this subject.”

Morina was named one of Variety‘s 10 Europeans to Watch earlier this year. He spoke to Variety about his own life as a refugee fleeing war in Kosovo, what class means for the immigrant experience in Germany, and the creeping normalization of attitudes that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

Your family fled Kosovo during the war, and you arrived in Germany as a 15-year-old boy, suddenly forced to navigate a completely different world. What was that period of your life like, and how much has it informed you as an adult and as a filmmaker?
Of course, it had a huge impact on me. Because of everything you said, but also the fact that we came as refugees. Coming as a refugee to a country, at least at that time, and at least in this country, it was a completely different thing. For example, it took some time before I was allowed to go to school, and I had to learn the language. And of course, this all had a huge impact on me.

If I think of the impact as a filmmaker, maybe the biggest impact was to lose—in German you would say Selbstverständlichkeit. When you have to reinterpret everything that belongs to your everyday life. When you have to start from scratch and to [relearn] everything around you. I think this was the most important fact. And learning the language. As a foreigner, I had to think about each word I’m learning, and to make connections to every word. This makes you very much aware of the language.

How much has that relationship to the country, and the language, changed for you? How “natural” does it feel? Because the film is very much, on the surface, about a man who’s very educated, he’s successful, he has a stable family. He is someone who you would expect to feel at home in this society, but obviously, he feels anything but.
I have no other home than Germany. It’s very natural for me to live here. When I walk around, I don’t consider myself a foreigner. But I think my experience would have changed if I would look a little bit different than I do. By “look different,” I mean less “European,” or black. And if I would have a name that sounds Arabic. But in my film, it was very important for me that I can tell the story of a guy who is not a foreigner. For me, the film was much more about a guy who is getting insecure about his place in the society, and tries to find out where this insecurity comes from. And gets lost in it.

Xhafer tells Nora a story about an old man who’s in the hospital because he’s fallen out of an apple tree, and the man says to the nurse that he’s only willing to accept visitors who have also fallen out of an apple tree. Do you think that reflects a sentiment that’s not uncommon among immigrants—the feeling that only people who have lived their same experience can understand and relate to their specific pain? Or is it perhaps even more universal than that?
Well, you know, Nietzsche said the same thing, basically. There is a book by Nietzsche that starts, “This is a book for nobody and everyone.” And then he talks about how you have to go through pain to understand it. I think at a certain level of pain, or something that is bothering you very deeply, you are all alone. You might have great friends, great family, a loving wife or husband. But at some level of pain, then you will be alone. This has nothing to do with the film. But I think the same is very important for me as a filmmaker. I think as a filmmaker you should stick to things you know about.

Xhafer is having a passionless affair with a Kosovar cleaning woman in his office, whom he frequently treats with disdain, even cruelty. However much he’s been affected by the persecution he feels from his coworkers, it hasn’t taught him to show her any compassion—quite the contrary. Do you think there’s an ugly, universal truth here: that wherever we are on the socioeconomic food chain, we always feel a need to assert our dominance, or superiority, over someone else?
I think this is a very interesting question. I think it’s not an easy question at all. In general, one thing I realized with the victims of racism, I sense that many of them start at some point, and after several years as they start to feel it, some of them start to see themselves as citizens of a third class of society. If everybody keeps telling me I am sh-t, at some point, there is a great chance that I start to believe it. I sense that, for example, with refugees—refugees who were longer in the country started talking bad about refugees that just came recently.

But the fact that [Xhafer is acting] like this, to be honest, I don’t think that nationality is that important. I think the social status he has in the society is quite important. For me, it has much more to do with the fact that she’s just a cleaning lady than the fact that she’s from Kosovo. I was very much trying [to show] in the film that nobody sees anybody. They are too busy in their own world. It’s like everybody is in a bubble. As you said before, Xhafer is in a very good situation. He has a very good job, he has money, he could not be more a part of society. I also wanted to have another foreigner to be represented in the film. Because compared to the problems that the cleaning lady is having, Xhafer’s problems are like a luxury.

“Integration” is a loaded term, particularly when it comes to a place like Germany—what Xhafer calls a “wannabe-cultivated, phony country”—and immigrants from outside so-called Western society. These past few years have been a period of mass migration and displacement, and certainly here in Europe, we’re constantly confronting these questions of “otherness” and “belonging.” When you look at Germany, or at Europe as a whole, how do you think future generations will judge us during this time?
To be honest, since we have somebody like Trump, I have no clue how to answer this question. Since so many things are becoming normal, and things that I would have never believed 10 years ago would be possible. I have no clue in what direction all this is going.

I can say, at least, Germany, because of the history, it has a very sensitive way of dealing with racism and nationalism. For example, in 2011, I was in Switzerland. There is a very racist party, and they were using very racist ads, and I was so happy that Germany would never do that. But all this changed [in] 2015, basically. In 2015, 2016, there was this New Year’s Eve in Cologne [where hundreds of women reported being harassed or sexually assaulted, with many of the attackers alleged to have been of North African or Middle Eastern origin]. It was a huge thing. And after that, I felt like a huge paranoia was going on in the country. And this was the year when I wrote the script. This was a very important thing for me, this paranoia. In 2015, most of the [German] people thought it was necessary to [welcome] refugees. This changed in 2016.

I had another experience. I was in Vienna, and I took a car to get to Cologne. I had to wait on the border for one hour. Since I’m from Kosovo, I have a very different relationship to borders, and I consider not having a border to be one of the biggest achievements you can have. I was waiting there to get checked, and I was thinking how weird it is, because it felt so normal. And how easily things can turn into their opposite, and feel as normal as they did before.

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