In October, Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne attended the BFI London Film Festival to present their new film, Tori and Lokita (2022). Watching it in the Curzon Mayfair, in the heart of London, the evening before I was to interview the pair, I found myself thinking about the hostile rhetoric towards immigrants of then Home Secretary Priti Patel. If we thought we were scraping the barrel, her successor Suella Braverman has only deepened England’s political hostility toward immigrants. She has admitted dreaming of planes taking off, filled with immigrants to be processed in Rwanda – a country with a poor human rights record, which had a similar and unsuccessful arrangement with Israel to that of the UK.
Watching the heartbreaking and empathetic drama Tori and Lokita provoked a reflection on how my homeland’s current policy toward immigrants is a form of abandoning its humanity. It is powerful when art speaks to real-life situations, as this film does. The following day, I sat opposite the pair, noticing their perceptive eyes and congenial smiles. The Dardenne brothers conveyed genuine warmth as our interview began.
Set in Belgium, Tori and Lokita is a deceptively simple film. It observes a young boy and an adolescent girl who have immigrated alone from Africa and the deep bond of friendship they forge.
It has been over 40 years since the Dardenne brothers’ feature directorial debut, Le chant du rossignol (1978). In that time, they’ve become leading voices representing working-class life and social struggles at home and the workplace.
Despite their longevity in the medium, Tori and Lokita is blessed with a first for the filmmakers. “It’s the first time that we take as lead characters, two young unaccompanied migrant minors,” says Luc. “Apart from The Silence of Lorna [Lorna’s Silence, 2008), where we do have migrants that are the main characters, here [in Tori and Lokita] they’re weaker – they’re foreigners and children.”
Lorna’s Silence centres on Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a young Albanian woman, and her lover Sokol (Alban Ukaj), whose ambitions to open a snack bar sees them becoming entangled with a scam run by criminal Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). There are parallels between these two films – Tori and Lokita are engaged by a drug dealer to sell and distribute his product. Both Lorna’s Silence and Tori and Lokia explore how immigrants are vulnerable to crime, but the directors are guarded against reducing their characters to simple archetypes. “In this film, what we’re concerned with is making sure that Tori and Lokita exist,” they explain. “They’re not statistics, immigrants, unaccompanied minors. No, they’re two individuals who are friends, and they express that friendship is more beautiful and brighter than everything else.”
Cinema has been called an “empathy machine”, which is a fitting way to think about this new work by the Dardenne Brothers. Tori and Lokita juxtaposes the political and cultural apathy toward the plight of immigrants with empathy. “Art and cinema enable you to become the other, or another. It’s a way of drawing you into a world, and you will totally empathise,” says Luc. “During that short time, you become that character, but after the film ends, that’s another question.”
The irreconcilable tragedy in Tori and Lokita‘s final act is vivid and will haunt viewers. What can society give Tori to reconcile the pain of Lokita’s fate? Both were let down by a society ill-equipped to support immigrants, or its indifference towards ‘the other’ is the root cause. It’s a powerful and haunting moment, and the audience can choose where to focus on the tragedy – futility or the film’s life-affirming message. “We also believe that the character of Tori has understood, and as he grows, he will understand that if he’s alive, it’s because Lokita saved him. Their friendship carries on … he’s the living proof of the strength of their friendship.”
Continuation is an underlying theme of Tori and Lokita. It verges on the philosophy of the cycle of life, specifically that there’s no end, merely a series of transformations that we interpret as an end. It’s not my intention to dismiss Lokita’s tragedy, but as Jean-Pierre suggests, the beginning and the end, life and death, are not easily segregated. Perhaps it’s only a human whim that these experiences have been simplified.
Tori and Lokita doesn’t try to broaden the philosophical discussion. Instead, it’s characteristically minimalist, placing the audience inside the world of the characters instead of trying to intellectualise the drama. The directors stay inside the emotion and trust that it can lead its audience to an intellectual place.
“I felt that too,” Luc says. “From the beginning, we’re carried along by their friendship, their naïveté, and their simple desire to live, but with the shadow of death following them all along. You follow them, and you’re worried for them. You empathise until there’s a death. Then you get hit by the hope that has preceded it.”
One of the striking impressions from this story is the maturity and resilience these two youngsters possess. Tori and Lokita challenges the idea that wisdom comes with age. Following Tori and Lokita on their doomed journey, if wisdom is absent in the purest sense of the word, there’s intelligence or cunning that helps them survive the difficulties of their situation.
“It’s because they’re children who are faced with adult situations,” says Jean-Pierre. “They react to them with a certain amount of naïveté, which at the same time is their strength.” He continues, “I believe this situation they find themselves in gives them the intelligence to work out possible solutions. They’re fixated on one very simple idea – how do we stay together? They’ve been living this way for months, thanks to this principle, and maybe that’s what gives them this wisdom and makes them aware of the weight of the condition of what’s happening.”
Tori and Lokita is showing now in the UK courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment.