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February 2010

Import Export

cast: Ekateryna Rak, Paul Hofmann, Michael Thomas

director: Ulrich Seidl

135 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Trinity DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Import Export

This is an extraordinary and disturbing film by Austrian director Ulrich Siedl. Made with a cast of largely non-professional actors (at the time of the film anyway, some have since gone on to other work), it's a bleak exploration of the lives of economically disposable people in contemporary Europe.

Essentially, Import Export consists of two thematically linked but otherwise unconnected stories. Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a nurse in the Ukraine as the film opens, living in a cheap apartment with her mother and her young baby, the hospital she works at unable to pay her full wages. Paul (Paul Hofman) is a young Austrian undergoing a ludicrously macho training course to become a security guard at a shopping mall. Olga and Paul are of similar ages, but not situations - Olga is already a mother and holding down a serious job, Paul loses his girlfriend because he can't understand she's serious when she says she's frightened of his new dog, and he owes money to seemingly everyone he knows.

Except, of course, their situations are more similar than at first they appear. Both are poor, neither has skills that are valued, neither seems to have much of a future yet both are doing their best to survive in a globalised market which places no value on either of them.

Despairing of making a living as a nurse, Olga is introduced by a friend to working in the sex industry, pretend-masturbating for German speaking strangers over a webcam. In a profoundly uncomfortable scene, we see Olga writhing naked for an increasingly irate client who shouts at her to "stick your finger up your ass." Import Export contains several highly explicit scenes in which sex workers perform for clients, and despite the women involved generally being attractive there is nothing even slightly sexy about any of it.

Olga struggles to take the sex work seriously, laughing at the ludicrous lines she is required to rehearse for the clients, and heads west to find work in Austria, first as a nanny and later as a cleaner in a geriatric hospital. Paul meanwhile loses his security job and ends up accompanying his stepfather east to the Ukraine delivering out-of-date videogame machines. This is the downside of globalisation, of free movement of workers, a freedom that largely consists of changing the backdrop for your exploitation.

Import Export avoids easy narratives, Olga's experience in sex work isn't much worse than her time as a nanny; if anything it seems slightly less abusive. Paul is uneducated, none too bright and fairly aggressive but for all that he's not a bad guy, he's just not very good at being a good guy. In both cases, Siedl has taken stock characters, the Eastern European sex worker, the unemployed young male hanging out in city centres, and given them a context and a humanity which they are normally denied. He has taken people who are generally made faceless, and brought us into their lives.

That doesn't make those lives pleasant. Paul spends some time at a skills centre, being trained to find jobs, his fellow trainees are told by their glib supervisor to repeat the mantra "I'm a winner," when it couldn't be more obvious that they've never had the chance to be anything of the sort. Olga is victimised by her employer as a nanny, and by a nurse who's jealous of her rapport with the patients and with an orderly when she works in the hospital. They have moments of escape, Olga with a patient who takes a liking to her, Paul briefly at an eastern European club with a girl he meets, but these don't lead anywhere and generally their lives are ones focused on survival and making do.

Import Export is in many ways a striking film, full of remarkable imagery (thanks to cameramen Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler). There's a stark power (beauty isn't quite the right word) in the opening shots of Ukrainian tower blocks, grim slabs of concrete deep in snow. Equally, the images of the sterility of Paul's home life and the bland prosperity of Austria make their points eloquently and effectively. Technically, this is a highly competent piece of filmmaking.

It's also though a very challenging film. The dementia patients in the hospital are chillingly convincing, raising the suspicion that they may not all be actors. The scene where Paul's stepfather (Michael Thomas) humiliates a prostitute simply because he can is actively difficult to watch, there's a casual lack of dignity and brutality which makes the viewer almost complicit, makes us perhaps part of the exploitation (similarly, our viewpoint when Olga works in the sex industry is largely that of her online clients).

It's hard to say that one enjoys a film like Import Export; it's too harrowing for that. Olga and Paul never meet, there's no pat merging of narratives, no relief found in each other. Instead, it's a disquieting film that shows life on the margins of the bright new Europe we've created and that rubs our faces in the lives that the majority's prosperity is either built on or ignores. The elderly patients in Austria live out their days in spotlessly clean wards where nobody talks to them and where they're cared for but not cared about, their economic utility spent they're simply no longer relevant.

Olga and Paul aren't old yet, but they were born irrelevant, products of a society that doesn't need them or want them. Single mothers, unemployed young men, immigrants, marginals, Import Export is a film that wants to show us what we would prefer not to see, and in doing so it shows too quite how unadventurous much film is. The fact that it's hard to watch, is a large part of why it's worth doing so.

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