When the outrages of the past five years are calculated by historians, it will be difficult to establish a hierarchy of malice. The rising tide of hate – and, make no mistake, it is still rising, although temporarily stemmed – has washed over so many vulnerable lives and lain so much wreckage on the shores of our social contract that an accurate appraisal of the damage is going to take decades. Even so, among the many atrocities perpetuated by the failed fascist still (for a little while, at least) at the helm of the United States’ executive branch, the special sadistic attention paid to refugees and asylum seekers has been the worst cruelty of them all.
Full disclosure: almost a decade ago, I worked for a year with refugees in my city as a volunteer with Americorps VISTA. Our clients came from many places: Myanmar, Iraq, and, as it happens, South Sudan. I met and befriended people from backgrounds as different from mine as one could possibly imagine, and heard stories of unimaginable horror and incredible courage. They were the kind of stories that render shameful the hate-filled, bigoted disinclination of a certain segment of Americans when it comes to welcoming newcomers into our midst. Nor is America alone in reacting to refugees with nationalistic fervor: in France, in Greece, in Germany, in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, there are many people who welcome those in need of a new nation to call their home, but there are also many who do not.
Two films currently on Netflix – Cuties and His House – tackle the thorny issues of migration and integration in two very different ways. Cuties is a discussion for another day (although I will go so far as to say that, having watched it, I think much of the hysteria surrounding it is based on a deliberate – and quite political – misunderstanding of the film, and I also think it was a well-crafted and disturbing look at the tensions between tradition, capitalism, and the sexualization of young girls in Western cultures). His House deals with a different set of issues, and uses a framework as old as human legends to tell a story as current as it is tragic.
Horror is a type of storytelling that lends itself particularly well to exploring the darker aspects of the human experience – which makes it the perfect device for telling the stories of loss and trauma that follow refugees like hungry ghosts. His House depicts the journey of a couple from South Sudan who have made the perilous journey from their conflict-riven former home to their new one in London. The pair is pursued and haunted by grief, trauma, and the presence of a supernatural evil that acts as a manifestation of the darkest events and most potent losses in their shared history.
Our Sudanese protagonists’ private struggles are set against a backdrop that is rendered with blistering, wince-inducing accuracy. The shoddy public housing, the bad neighborhood replete with its share of poverty-stricken young malefactors, the bored indifference of bureaucrats in whose doughy hands hangs one’s fate – all of these were familiar to me from my time working with the refugee community in my city. Likewise, the efforts of Bol and Rial to make the best of it, to adapt to what are – to them – foreign customs and ways of thinking; these were also familiar. Woven into this complex interplay is a horror story that is both compelling and deeply frightening, a tale that offers an unsettling perspective on the nature of what makes a home – and what haunts one.
His House was written and directed by Remi Weekes, a hitherto-obscure writer and director of short films who knocked this one out of the park. Special praise is also due here to the film’s secret weapon: Frank Kruse, a German sound designer and editor whose previous credits include Netflix’s opulent Babylon Berlin and the hypnotic 2018 remake of Suspiria. The attention to sonic detail in His House is extraordinary. From the texture of drunken arguments heard through thin walls to the menacing jeers that echo in a mazelike slum to the chilling patter of phantom footsteps – it’s some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard, and my hat is off to Herr Kruse.
2020 marks – I hope – the beginning of a reexamination in the United States and elsewhere in the West of how we understand and show compassion to refugees. When you strip away the phantoms from His House, Bol and Rial’s story could be that of any of the countless people displaced by ethnic, political, or religious conflict. It’s an intensely human story – and one that it’s within our power to grant a happy ending.
UPDATE: Less than a day after I wrote the above review, there was good news on this front. I hope that’s an indication of further steps to come.