Import/Export is Ulrich Seidl’s second feature film following on from the hard-hitting and uncompromising Dog Days (2002), but the director’s background in documentary cinema stretches back over three decades. The same rigorous attention to the realities of everyday life aligned with a deeply pessimistic outlook on modern society is evident in Seidl’s latest film, but here it is pushed to ever greater extremes. A realistically bleak examination of lives cast adrift on the tide of sweeping changes in modern Europe, Import/Export is as resolutely direct as its title suggests.
On the import side of the film is Olga, a young woman working as a nurse in the Ukraine. Poorly paid, and sometimes not even paid her full wages, she supplements the income she needs to look after her child by working in the porn industry, performing live on camera for on-line clients in other parts of Europe. She is eventually forced to leave her child behind with her mother, travelling to Austria to look for work and new opportunities, initially as a housekeeper and then, even though a qualified nurse, as a mere cleaner on the geriatric ward of a Viennese hospital.
In the export sections of the film, an Austrian Security guard called Pauli eventually makes the opposite journey into Eastern Europe, seeking to escape his debts and the increasing urban violence and alienation he finds himself caught up in. Attempting to work off some of those debts, Pauli travels with his stepfather over into Slovenia and eventually to the Ukraine, transporting and dealing in gumball machines and out-of-date arcade games, but he makes no more meaningful connection with the people he meets there.
The exchange between two cultures uncomfortably thrown together, the conflicts and the accommodations made between them, have been seen on the screen earlier this year in The Edge of Heaven, but although certainly interlinked, unlike Fatih Akin’s overly structured and dramatically contrived parallel situations between Turkish and German communities, Import/Export follows the lives of its two characters with a sense of almost documentary realism. As a depiction of everyday life, it’s straightforward, showing us a social reality we are already aware of – unemployment, immigration, poverty, the internet sex industry, urban alienation, the shortcomings of the health service - but showing it to us in a much more gritty, realistic manner that we are perhaps accustomed to viewing it. Avoiding grand cinematic gestures, the film forces us to view a reality that we’d rather not think too deeply about by pushing these issues far beyond the stage where they’ve made their point into an area that makes the viewer very, very uncomfortable indeed. One scene when Pauli and his stepfather bring a 19 year-old prostitute back to their hotel room in particular is profoundly unsettling and not the kind of scene that you would expect to see a professional actor perform. Like many of the scenes in the geriatric ward, this can often seem exploitative of real people and their condition, but the director’s willingness to move outside the accepted boundaries of what it is acceptable to depict in either a documentary or narrative film breaks down any kind of cinematic contrivance and alerts us to the fact that there are no doubt similar scenes being enacted every day by many “real” people all over the world. Much as it makes us uncomfortable to realise this, it’s a point that the film needs to make and it makes it very strongly indeed.
The directness with which Seidl shows this consequently makes the film fascinating and grimly compelling, replacing traditional structure and narrative drive with natural elements of human behaviour that the viewer can recognise arising out of the context of the situations. There may be no contrived cinematic structure to enforce the point, but parallels do exist in both stories and it’s left to the viewer to identify the common elements that are universal. The experiences of Olga and Pauli on both sides of the import/export divide show that as far as society and people’s attitudes are concerned, there are certain borders that still exist, whether through prejudice, xenophobia or just plain jealousy. And it’s not just the obvious negative values of poverty, segregation and exploitation – the film also touches on other aspects of life that are inextricably linked to the human condition. Regardless of their position, language and nationality on the import/export divide, compassion, hope and humour also exist amid the misery.
Import/Export then is all about the breaking down of borders through the opening up of international frontiers in Europe and through the options made available through the Internet. As many of the examples of the film show however, rather than offering greater opportunities, the new society is unprepared for such openness and instead uses these freedoms only to exploit and enslave people further. Just as importantly, Import/Export is also about taking the viewer across a border, forcefully taking cinema-goers out of their comfort zone to confront the realities of the society we live in and witness uncomfortable truths that we’d perhaps not wish to acknowledge.