LIKE many film-makers, Aki Kaurismaki wants to change people’s minds and challenge their preconceived ideas. Past films have modernised canonical works (“Hamlet Goes Business”, “Crime and Punishment”) and approached well-thumbed topics—such as financial hardship and the exploitation of women—in unusual ways (“The Match Factory Girl”, “Juha”, “Drifting Clouds”). With his trilogy about refugees, he has taken on an even thornier and more divisive issue. “Le Havre” (winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in 2011) followed an African boy who was smuggled to the French port town in a sealed truck. At this year’s Berlinale, he premiered “Toivon Tuolla Puolen” (“The Other Side of Hope”), the second instalment. 

Shot in Finland, Mr Kaurismaki’s homeland, “The Other Side of Hope” tells two stories. The first is of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian refugee who arrives in Helsinki as a stowaway on a coal cargo ship. Once showered and changed, he follows the correct legal procedures: he registers at a police station and carefully fills out his application for asylum at the immigration office. At a shelter, he meets Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), a refugee from Iraq, who furnishes him with some advice for adapting to the strange and melancholic country. “Be happy and smile,” he recommends. “The authorities don’t give asylum to sad people.”  

Mr Kaurismaki lays bare some of the absurdities of the system. In painful detail, Khaled describes how the air raids on Aleppo ruined the city and killed his family; only he and his sister survived, but he lost her on the long and gruelling flight to Europe. He hopes to find her, to earn a living and start a new life. Yet Khaled’s application for asylum is eventually rejected on the grounds that parts of Aleppo are considered intact—he should return to an undamaged area. In a scene at the refugee shelter, news footage of the airstrikes plays in the background as people prepare food. It is clear that to return would be a death sentence. 

The second thread of the films follows Waldemar Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmane), an unsuccessful clothing salesman in his 50s stuck in an unhappy marriage. On a whim, he gives up the business and leaves his wife, starting anew as the owner of a small run-down restaurant in the outskirts of Helsinki. This is where his life intersects with Khaled’s; forced to live illegally, Khaled is squatting in the courtyard of Waldemar’s new acquisition. Violent antagonism eventually gives way to sympathy, and Waldemar offers Khaled shelter, a job and even a new identity (thanks to two young computer nerds, who provide him with a falsified ID). 

Mr Kaurismaki’s locations have been carefully considered: both Le Havre and Helsinki have contended with an influx of refugees in recent years. According to the Finnish Immigration Service, the country received 3,600 applications for asylum in 2014, a figure that rose to 32,400 in 2015. Accordingly, xenophobic attacks increased, with stones, fireworks and petrol bombs thrown at refugees and reception centres (this is echoed in the film; Khaled is attacked several times by a neo-Nazi group in bomber jackets and combat boots). Yet Mr Kaurismaki prefers to focus his lens on the ordinary, empathetic citizens whom he considers his true countrymen. He admits that the film is “tendentious” in its promotion of solidarity with refugees, but hopes that it will “open up Europe’s way of looking” beyond the usual “clichés and prejudices”. He wants viewers to leave the cinema and be inspired to act with kindness. 

As is appropriate for a film exploring a global issue, “The Other Side of Hope” will be screened across the world; since its international premiere on February 14th, distribution deals have been signed in Britain, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden and Japan. Having won the Silver Bear for Best Director, more distribution deals are likely to follow. It is a poetic and surprisingly light-hearted film, anticipating that humanity will one day prevail over racism and fear. Mr Kaurismaki envisages that the next instalment of his trilogy will be a comedy; by then, he hopes, refugees will be more widely accepted. Audiences may be left waiting.