Reviews Short Narrative

The Load (2021) – 4.5 stars

Director: Miranda Namicheishvili

Writer: Ilia Jibgashvili

Cast: Lasha Gurgenidze, Levan Khaziuri, Lano Beboshvili

Running time: 15mins

There are a million valid reasons why individuals feel the need to ‘illegally’ migrate, with lives on the line, and ‘legitimate’ points of entry closed off, or utterly unaffordable. One example which springs to mind is the escape of Ted Van Der Zalm; told he would never leave prison by corrupt authorities in Dubai, he constructed a box, and miraculously managed to mail himself to Amsterdam (as explained in Matt Johanning’s excellent documentary, Amereki Kum). Meanwhile, many, many more would-be Ted Van Der Zalms have put their lives on the line to escape war, famine and extreme poverty across Africa and the Middle East, by attempting to sale dinghies across the Mediterranean and English Channel.

But while one of those cases is lauded as ‘daring’ and ‘brave’, the other is framed as ‘worrying’, and ‘dangerous.’ No prizes for guessing which of those two narratives is concerned with a white American. That’s not his fault of course, and his reasons for illegally shipping himself to Europe are entirely defensible – but the reaction to them does highlight the open racism that much of the mainstream discourse on migration buys into, wholesale.

Admirably setting out to challenge that dichotomy is The Load – a short film which places us firmly in the claustrophobic hell of an illegal border-crossing. Writer Ilia Jibgashvili’s measured script manages to be empathetic, without veering into mawkishness, presenting us with a warts-and-all portrait of three migrants living in the belly of a cargo ship, headed for America. In the darkness, they struggle to maintain control of their emotions – something exacerbated by the unbearable heat, their dehydration, and the catastrophic loosening of one man’s bowels.

Amid such a nightmare, the trio forge a deep kinship, regardless of their different identities and aspirations. Initially this is borne of the drive for self-preservation – our lead character, Mate (Lasha Gurgenidze), tries to help his cohabitors keep it together for fear that they will all be discovered – the bond soon transcends this; with the shipmates swapping reasons for taking such desperate measures, and eventually even singing to each other.

And trapped in the crate with nothing to engage with but these characters, it is inevitable that we become invested in this voyage – hoping for their safe passage, against all the odds. That is an excellent idea for a means of telling a story so under-represented, even in the wake of a decade-long refugee crisis in Europe. Even when that story is addressed, it has often been an exercise of detached hand-wringing over statistics, that fails to get its hands dirty, showing us a migrant’s-eye-view of the world, and helping us empathise with them first-hand, as human beings.

The assortment of backgrounds covered also helps with this – Mate is from Georgia, and is desperate to leave Eastern Europe to help his brother, who has recently been jailed in the US. Meanwhile, Ray (Lano Beboshvili, exhibiting a worrying cough) originally hails from Congo, but is making a last-ditch attempt to access life-saving healthcare. A third man, unwilling to be named, is also travelling from Tunisia alongside them. What this makes clear is there are many reasons someone might be pushed to do this – and when confronted with them face-to-face, it is hard to argue we would not do the same in such a situation.

But all the best ideas, and well-written scripts, can add up to nothing if committed to film without due care. That brings me to the work of director Miranda Namicheishvili, who expertly executes the story. Exhibiting a self-awareness that is often lacking from independent, student productions (this is a student film), Manicheishvili is determinedly minimalistic in her approach, rarely showing us more than we need to see to understand what is going on. There are no gratuitous expository shots of what is going on in any migrant’s crate; just occasional, clammy close-ups of Mate, bargaining for calm as the desperation escalates. There is no final tragic glimpse of Ray when the inevitable finally occurs.

As well as neatly sidestepping the potential for showing up the film as ‘cheap’, by reducing the need for props, makeup, and a set, this restraint adds to the claustrophobia of the setting. We really feel boxed in which helps tether us to the characters. Meanwhile, it also adds potency to the reactions of Mate. Actor Lasha Gurgenidze gives a wonderful, nuanced performance, as a gruff-seeming man whose softer side is unavoidably brought out by the plight of his comrades. His delivery is the perfect thing to hang the whole production on, delivering simmering responses that mean while we can’t see what is going on, we know all too well. Amid the horrors of the journey, even as it is clear panic is always bubbling away under his exterior, he keeps a hold on himself – so when a solitary tear finally escapes him, it is clear something really bad has happened to his friend.

It also adds a bitter-sweet touch to the film’s final sequence. On the other side of the journey – it revisits the song that gave the three men comfort in those hellish hours about the ship; while the fact it is something of an ear-worm means the tune will remain with us for the rest of the day. It will keep prompting us to mull over the experiences we have witnessed – and how they put a face on the tragic ‘statistics’ we so often scroll past in our newsfeeds.

There are very few holes to pick with The Load. That hacking cough of Ray might have been a little on-the-nose. And that eternal bugbear of the credits returns, as Namicheishvili’s cast-list does not make it clear which actor played which character. But beyond that, this is faultless – a touching and important insight into the unseen lives of refugees around the world.

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