Life is (not) a game

Mirza Skenderagić: Review of the film „The Mind Game “

Life is (not) a game

The sixth AJB DOC Film Festival opened with the documentary The Mind Game directed by Eefje Blankevoort and Elsa van Driel, featuring the main actor and director Sajid Khan Nasiri. The film was presented to the festival audience with a somewhat unusual translation: “Game: The Second Level”. In fact, in some way, it can be considered a sequel or an extended segment of the successful full-length production of this Dutch duo, “Shadow Game” released in 2021. Notably, one of the several protagonists in that film, depicting the journey of illegal teenage refugees through the “circles of hell” in Europe, was Sajid Khan Nasiri himself, who was 14 when he had to flee Afghanistan. Now he finds himself "playing" a new game between life and death, life and film. In this game, to succeed, he must navigate through barbed wire fences and borders to reach the "second level", alive. The second level represents asylum in Belgium and a fresh start instead of a game over, but even that level poses its own challenges. Although this film effectively documents, firsthand, all the horrors of illegal immigration in modern democratic Europe, and succeeds in fostering empathy that reality often fails to convey due to the blindness of prejudices, and despite occasionally veering into a seemingly scripted interpretation of a true confession, its ultimate aesthetic concept appears to get stuck in the gap between form and content. Consequently, it appears that the director's vision of "game" as a mutable, contemporary cultural phenomenon of reality may not have been fully realized creatively, remaining more as an idea in the words of Sajid Khan Nasiri.

In addition to being the main "protagonist" in his own life, Nasiri has also assumed the role of its director, as the film is based on cell phone footage he recorded during his two-year struggle, or as this young man with a shy smile and Bollywood eyes refers to it, "the game". The film commences with a static shot of the corridor in the reception center, which, although painted in vivid yellow and blue colours, appears sterile and depressing, symbolically reflecting Nasiri’s current emotional state. Emerging from one of the rooms, he dons a leather jacket once belonging to his late best friend Majid. Nasiri will later reveal that Majid committed suicide just five days after arriving in Belgium. The directors embark on Nasiri's narrative, i.e. the plot of the film, with an interview in an asylum seekers reception center in Belgium. During the interview, Nasiri says that he has been waiting for a second asylum interview for  nearly a year. For him this represents a process of confronting the inevitable, mirroring Nasiri’s current psychological and physical entrapment at the threshold of a new life, with memories of his mother and brother, whom he hasn't seen in three years. This extremely honest and somewhat anxious introductory interview is interrupted by the first short, sparsely stylized scene, as a substitute for opening credits. In this scene, conveyed with a sound anomaly, a restless camera, short cuts, and a focus on Nasiri’s eyes, the filmmakers attempt to capture his overwhelming sense of anxiety. Nasiri, however, tries to escape this anxiety with a smile, as he himself will mention before the tittle appears. Created during breaks, this scene serves as a transition to the central interview of the film, with lighting, cameras, microphones, and Nasiri's face isolated against black background. He initiates the interview by instructing director Blankevoort, expressing concerns about the lighting setup and requesting to be moved to the center. In doing so, they play with Nasiri's role as the director of his own cinematic confession. As Blankevoort actually moves the lighting, it becomes evident that this film is exclusively Nasiri's own creation, with Blankevoort and Van Driel serving as, after all, "just" assistants.

“Hello, everyone. I am Said Khan Nasiri from Afghanistan, but everyone calls me SK. I want to share my story," said the now grown-up 18-year-old Nasiri, showing a picture of himself on his cell phone from four years ago, when he was still a boy living in his native country. "Did you know where you were going?", one of the directors behind the camera asked him. Nasiri replied that he was simply "observing people and watching movies" and had hoped to easily reach Europe. "But it was very difficult." From that moment on, Nasiri's life and cinematic “game” began, captured through his amateur cell phone videos while traveling through the dark side of Europe – the side hidden from the public, the one between national borders, where it's always raining, where it’s always cold and where the road seems to have no end in sight. "I'm starting the game," Nasiri continued, while his voiceover alternated with dramatic and poignant footage of his uncertain and extremely dangerous journey through Europe. Throughout that journey he did everything he could to reach a country that would promise him a better life. "Every day, every moment. Game, game, game. If you want to go to Europe, you have to play many games. The game means that you will have to cross the border illegally. There are different games. The boat game. The train game. The container game. The taxi game (...)", Nasiri hinted at the central theme of the film's ideosphere, but at the same time he also defined his perspective on life, in which the term "game" served as a detachment from reality. Because in the game you can't really get killed by "bad guys”; in the game the police won't really brutally beat you up; in the game you won’t experience real hunger or freeze from real cold. It's simple, like in a game - after one failure, you just have to try again and that's precisely what Nasiri did. He tried to cross the border, not thinking about death.

One issue that can already be identified as a problem with the film in this initial narrative moment is the director's failure to respond adequately to the form of the "game", or to find a suitable creative concept to bring it to life. In this regard, the term “game” is only mentioned in the content as Nasiri talks about it, but it seems that no effort was made to explore the uniqueness of the game world. Of course, we are not referring to a literal "translation" of the world of video games or survival games, as seen in the film The Hunger Games (2012), but rather to an adequate authorial space for such a fragmented dramaturgical mosaic, where the idea of life as a game could truly come to life and become a suitable environment for a film hero whose name, Khan, is not coincidental. However, it cannot be said that the structure of Nasiri's film is entirely subordinate to his life confession. Instead, the attempts were made to “colour” the shortcomings of its dramaturgy with modern technical solutions borrowed from the internet world of social networks and applications. For example, they incorporated animated Viber or WhatsApp conversations between Nasiri and the female directors, while the entire mosaic of his illegal journey through Europe was supplemented by Google Earth and its virtual 3D representation of the Earth's surface. All these elements contribute to the final impression of the film, which might give the feeling that there are too many different mediators standing between Nasiri and the audience.  This, of course, was a result of the need to fill gaps in the structure due to an insufficient number of cell phone shots. It raises the question of how this film might have appeared if it had been entirely shot by Nasiri during his two-year journey to Belgium. Therefore, when discussing the concept’s dramaturgy, it can be said that the uncertainty of the real story was only partially preserved, especially since the beginning of the narrative immediately reveals its conclusion - that Nasiri successfully reached Belgium. This certainly affected the dramatic tension of his recordings and his waiting for asylum was used to prolong the suspense.

As Nasiri’s journey progresses and borders shift, so does his "European experience". While people in Tuzla are "very kind", Nasiri notes that “if people in Kladuša catch you, they will beat you with sticks and throw stones at you." Also, Croatian policemen, in particular, stand out as extremely violent and brutal, something that Nasiri often documents with disturbing photographs. The film does not conclude with an entirely happy ending, but it instils hope for a more beautiful world – one that has room for a hard-working, courageous and well-intentioned young man who is not the kind of “savage” that European public opinion often preconceives illegal migrants to be.

Ultimately, the greatest value of the movie „The Mind Game “is not just preserving another true, painful and inspiring life story, but also, quite literally, saving a life. The conversations Nasiri had with the female directors, the videos he recorded, and the testimonies he shared represent levels of a higher game, the one that may not have shielded him from hunger, winter, or police batons, but it did protect him from fading into oblivion. It is a game of filmmaking in which we take on the leading role, a game that allows us to outsmart life because, after all, life is (not) a game.