The story is familiar to us. She, or he, or they are poor. Poor in that way that most Americans cannot understand because it’s unending hunger, foreclosed options for survival (much less betterment), and deafening abandonment by anything like state services. This is the story of the migrant, the refugee, the sans papiers, the burners (harragas). We have seen the newsreels and documentaries. We know of the deaths and the refugee camps. We have heard the ugly rhetoric whipped up on both sides of the Atlantic by the threat–or is it audacity? or is it the inconsiderateness of undeniable need?–these bodies present to Europe and the UK and the USA.
Ala Eddine Slim’s 2016 film, The Last of Us is part of this story, but it’s told with a different plot. It starts as we would expect, with a man and his friend walking steadily through the desert, stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, using cell phones and body language to arrange for a truck to carry them to Tunis. But things happen and the man arrives in Tunis alone. All of this is regular. I mean, it’s sad, but nothing is amiss in the story arc.
The man seems as alone in crowded Tunis as he did in the desert. He makes it to the ocean, he scopes out a boat to steal. We know this story and we are attached to the man now. We know the high stakes of this part of the adventure and we gear up for it. We might even know the map of Tunisia that shows what seems a tiny stretch of water between the tip of Tunisia and the Western coast of Italy:
It looks so absolutely doable! We see the man preparing for the voyage, we see him powering across the ocean in the little boat: We want him to make it! And here, just at this moment of wanting him to make it, Slim turns our want back on us. Having set us up for it, he slams on the brakes of the plot and denies it to us. The rest of the film is something else, something that leads me to ask about the want I had for this man. What did I want in wanting him to make it? What did I want from this film? Did I think this character would find a better life in Italy? Did I want the film to reaffirm Europe as the legitimate aspiration for the world’s desperate poor?
When Slim stops the film’s plot one-third of the way into this film, the screen goes black and we are given what seems to be a poem or a stanza from a poem, one line at a time. It may be from the Libyan author, Fathi al Akkari (I could be wrong about this; correct me?) and it goes like this:
I stormed in deep into the human jungle/ Where I figured out myself as a ghost/ I had revelations/ In the beginning/ I was a nervous heat/ Then a tune, then an image/ And then a word/ I vomited humankind/ I related to the birds, plants and beasts/ I was enchanted by the woodland/ I relished the light and the water/ I thrust into the human nature/ I sailed into the light experience/ A moment of attainment and harmony
Then the camera returns us to the boat. It and its human occupant are fading away:
With a brutal cut, we see the man on the shore of a jungle island.
Things happen; apparently, his compass no longer works here. Where is this? Is he dead? He meets another man who seems able to show him foraging and hunting and some basic first aid, but they never talk, they cannot be said to form a community or an intimacy of any sort. More things happen, much is violent, all of it is rather confusing.
At one point the man (now changed in dress and habit) squats on a tree that has fallen across a river and howls like a wolf. The noise is startling because we have forgotten that anything but silence is possible.
At the end–and I honestly am not giving anything away in showing you this–the man stands at a waterfall and fades away:
I can think of The Last of Us in two ways. In the first, this film is a kind of embedded fantasy, like (but completely unlike) Zack Snyder’s 2011 Sucker Punch. The man makes it to Italy and he meets someone who shows him the ropes, but he experiences it as entering a jungle, encountering a wild man, and living on the edge of sanity and civilization. This understanding of the film indicts Europe (and all countries who dehumanize immigrants) for stripping this man down to bare life, or what Homi Bhabha calls “burdened life,” and this understanding also indicts my viewer desire for this man to “make it,” to end up in Italy or somewhere in Europe, eking out a life barely understandable to him.
The second way I can understand this film is that it takes hold of my viewer desire for this man to “make it” to Europe, and refigures it as a desire for him to “get out” of whatever desperate circumstances he left. To make it to Europe is no escape, this film suggests, and to imagine some Edenic destination with chosen kinship, natural bounty, and hard-won comfort is simply too unbearably false to the conditions of today’s world. The bulk of the plot takes place on an odd, violent, and ethereal island which seems to offer the man not so much a ‘back to nature’ experience as a ‘displacement to wilderness’ experience. But perhaps, still or even so, it is an experience of attaining a kind of wisdom, if not harmony.
Only after watching this film again, drafting this post, and searching more for the author of that poem did I find Slim’s statement about the film at the Still Moving Film Distribution website. He writes there:
“The Last of Us is a sequel of my previous films. It is a continuity of research in the themes that are of importance to me: the problems of borders, imaginary territories, contemporary solitude, vagrancy, the issues of crossing and of the human nature in all its facets. The project tackles the realm of magical realism, of the ephemeral, and of disappearance and mutation. The problem of illegal sea crossings has existed for many years. During these travels, many people die at sea, and others succeed in reaching the other side. Moreover, there are those who go missing and whose bodies are never found. The leading character in The Last of Us is a missing body”.
Yes, I got that he is a missing body, but why his disappearance and mutation is plotted out this way remains open for discussion. Whatever the reasons, or lack of them, I find the film haunting. And I find it a crucial comment on how the human world is treating itself these days.