Hisham Zaman’s film A Happy Day follows a group of teenagers in a remote refugee centre on the cusp of adulthood and thus, deportation.
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In A Happy, Happy Day, director Hisham Zaman repeatedly returns to a similar wide shot of three teenage boys walking single file through the snow, ant-sized compared to the mountain behind them. It’s an apt metaphor for how the boys are ultimately alone, facing a system and a landscape that will chew them up and spit them out like bugs.
The boys live in a Norwegian refugee centre for unaccompanied minors, where they await their eighteenth birthday and deportation. What should be a happy day and a rite of passage is practically a death sentence, and everyone knows it. The film opens with the boys amidst a failed escape attempt. The camp staff on a routine patrol rescue them. The boys are lost and aren’t even wearing warm enough clothing.
The relaxed exasperation of the centre’s staff suggests that futile escape plans like this are common. There’s even a cheeky shot as they return to the centre when one of the boys walks through a big metal door. It’s the kind of entrance you’d expect at a military camp or a prison. But the camera pulls back to reveal no fence surrounding it, no lock, nothing to keep the residents in the centre — aside from the winter and remote locale. It’s a door that serves absolutely no purpose.
Three boys looking for an escape
Hamid (Salah Qadi) is the youngest of the boys, a poet at heart, whose musings sometimes appear in voiceover. His friends Aras (Ravand Ali Taha) and Ismail (Mohamed Salah) have just aged into exile, making the need to escape more imminent for them. Into this mess walks newcomer Aida (Sarah Aman Mentozi), who has hopped from centre to centre. Perhaps the most world-weary of them all, Aida forms a semi-romantic connection with Hamid. They try to squeeze as many teenage rites of passage — sharing secrets and holding hands — into what little time they have.
Although A Happy Day begins with deadpan humour, there’s always a deep melancholy underneath. Every hair-brained scheme is a reminder of how little power the boys have. Every romantic first Hamid and Sarah share may also be their last. As the film progresses, Zaman buries us deeper and deeper into Hamid’s psyche until reality and his imagination blur. At one point, an image of characters reaching nirvana becomes a mark of likely death.
Hisham Zaman succeeds with a difficult tonal balancing act
Zaman mostly succeeds with this difficult tonal balancing act. Like the characters, we laugh because it’s easier than crying. We enjoy every precious moment of happiness because we know they’ve been rationed. We never see what happens when people leave the camp or what horrors they face. Zaman leaves this to the imagination. Sometimes, Hamid’s fanciful imaginings are preferable. The longer you sit with them, days after the film, the more haunting they are.
In the early scenes of A Happy Day, I was reminded of Ben Sharrock’s similarly deadpan refugee story Limbo (2020). Limbo is also set in a remote refugee centre, this time in Scotland, but the characters are in a different kind of limbo. They’re waiting for their lives to start: to get their visas after years of waiting and become a member of British society. The characters in A Happy Day are in a kind of limbo, but one with little hope on the other end. They must make of it what they can.
Related reading/listening to Hisham Zaman’s film A Happy Day
More films about the European migrant crisis: Read our review of Ben Sharrock’s similarly deadpan refugee story Limbo (2020).
More films like A Happy Day at TIFF 2023: Many films at TIFF gesture toward the migrant crisis through overheard radio shows, like Fallen Leaves and Solitude. Solitude has a small but amusing subplot in which a middle-aged man tries to do his bit for Iceland’s migrant crisis. Read our review of Solitude.