All You See
(Netherlands, 72 min.)
Dir. Niki Padidar
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe (North American Premiere)
What does it mean to belong? How long does one need to be local before there’s a sense of acceptance, that the story of one’s arrival is not trumping the legacy of one staying? These questions, and some far more hostile and ignorant from those in the community, are at the heart of Niki Padidar’s brisk, bold film.
Told through a series of interview and theatricalized vignettes, we hear from Khadija who has spent almost three decades in Holland and yet consistently must answer questions from strangers about her origin. People also ask whether she sunburns or, more disturbingly, whether she underwent infibulation. There’s Sophia, a young girl with an English accent who tries to integrate and make friends. She finds that people around her chastise her eagerness to fit in. Then there’s Hannah, a young girl from Ukraine who has more actively sought to integrate into local life and practices, forming her own bonds while downplaying her perceived otherness.
All You See begins in a somewhat stilted fashion, losing its focus through its formalist staging. While it takes a while to get going, by the last act, there’s more confidence in the stories being told by the subjects, but also a larger sense of the intent of the film. Even more so, when Padidar’s own journey off-camera is made explicit, it’s all the more effective. It invites an emotional response from a country that isn’t quite as welcoming as the Imax-screen nationalist presentation that “educates” children elsewhere in the film.
Of course, these elements about who “counts” as local are hardly unique to Holland. (See, for example, The Visitors in The Changing Face of Europe at Hot Docs this year.) The notions of what counts as Ukrainian underpin the conflict taking place right now. The idea of Englishness is also fundamental to recent Brexit developments. Similarly, the Somali civil war was a brutal reminder of post-colonial divides becoming murderous, while the fundamental identities of what is understood to be Iranian are tied not only to centuries of Persian history, but also to the ramifications of the last half-century of cultural upheaval.
The micro-aggressive comments and challenges of maintaining a unique identity while still feeling part of a community may not be unique issues for Holland, but that’s the focus of the film’s gaze. It also reflects how each of these women and young girls navigate this sense, from adult and childhood perspectives, which gives the film much of its power. Padidar carefully allows each character to tell the story from their own perspectives, but subtle moments allow one to feel the distancing, such as when young girls are actively turning their backs on the seemingly overeager young girl, or even making overt what they feel she should be doing to fit in, rather than what the other students should be doing to make her feel welcome.
The result is a look at the specificity of these experiences in one country, but with hints about how the very notion of community and belonging is at best fluid and, at worst, barriers to our shared humanity. There are no easy solutions at play here, no quick fixes save for the understanding of how so many of these comments thrown the way of these individuals may be intended as taking interest but instead become constant reminders of a lack of belonging. Khadija speaks of being interrogated daily, some 40,000 responses over the decades with constant reminders that whatever she does, however she becomes part of Dutch society, she will never be considered part of the community. It’s up in the air whether the two others will feel quite the same way as they grow up, but it’s a cautionary tale nonetheless.
Evocative and emotionally rich, All You See provides some important perspectives on these deeply complex situations, just as it lays bare painful situations. By focussing on the stories of these individuals, the film provides both an intimate, specific understanding of these circumstances, as well as a broader examination of just what it means to belong both from where one started and where one has ended up. By providing a framework to begin these challenging conversations the film does well, and once it gets past its more rickety start, it settles in to a truly resonant and powerful film that provides unique insights into the lives of these individuals who are navigating the liminal emotional space that stretched from their motherland to what’s now called home.