What Vitamin Sweets Are for: Barbara Kowalewska writes about "Oskar & Lilli – Where No One Knows Us"

‘Oskar & Lilli…’ is based on the motifs of Monica Helfer’s novel and tells a story of three Chechen refugees, a mother with two children, who were ordered to leave Austria, to which they fled from war-torn Chechnya. The film begins with a violent scene of police intrusion into the family’s apartment to deport them. The children don’t understand how this can be true, since they’ve lived in Austria for six years, speak German, and Chechnya’s already become a foreign country to them. In an act of desperation to save at least her children, the mother cuts her wrists and has to be hospitalized, while Oskar and Lilli are taken into foster care that they rebel against but can’t really fight. This is how the story of one of many refugee families unable to find their place on earth begins. In his film, Iranian director Arash T. Riahi (who grew up in Vienna) raises this still very topical issue and tackles it in a skilful manner. The acting and direction in ‘Oskar & Lilli…’ is done with class, and the film is for me one of the most important pieces for young viewers that have been made recently.

How to (Dis)assimilate

The story vividly shows the feeling of alienation experienced by Oskar and Lilli in their foster families and, at the same time, the helplessness of adults trying to make them feel at home. There’s a balance maintained in the way their relationship is presented: the people who have taken in the children (each of them ends up in a different family) have good intentions, but also can’t really comprehend how different they are. They only have a vague understanding of it means to take care of a refugee child, which leads to them often expecting too much from them. Paradoxically, Oskar’s foster mother keeps telling him that he should “assimilate”, while there’s a number of arbitrary rules that she wants him to follow at home (for instance to become a vegetarian just like them). Still, adults are not shown as bad, but simply imperfect. What’s more, they’re constantly put to the test by these two young rebels, whose only dream is to get their biological mother back.

Dear Mum

A childlike point of view is reflected in the bittersweet way Oskar reacts to the reality around him. He asks his teacher (that’s what he calls his foster mother) if he can be a vegetarian while still eating meat, because in Chechnya people eat a lot of it. When he hears that it’s not allowed to lie in his new home, he says that he doesn’t think it’s normal, because a normal person lies five times a day. He writes letters to his mum, even though he can’t send them, because he doesn’t know where she is: “Dear Mom, I have parents, but no meat. I try to be a good person, I even gave the Austrian a sandwich.” Oskar draws a great deal of energy from his magical thinking: “If we're happier, they’ll give us back to mum.” In his subsequent letters, he says: “I’m getting happier.” Until it turns out that it doesn’t work, so he persuades his older sister to become “bad”, because then their foster families may return them to their mother. His next letter reports that the teacher has second thoughts about adopting him, as it seems that Oskar may be dangerous. The boy confesses: “I want to be dangerous.”

Lilli and Vitamin Candy

Oskar’s older sister experiences the whole situation differently. She’s annoyed by her brother’s magical thinking, because she’s already aware of the reality of the world around them. Her efforts are focused on remotely taking care of her brother and trying to pin down her mother’s whereabouts. The mutual loyalty the siblings feel for each other is crucial for their survival – it’s symbolized in them offering each other vitamin candy that their mother would give them before their separation. Lilli finally finds her mother and, together with her brother, visits her in the psychiatric hospital. It’s there where the most emotionally devastating scene takes place: the mother pretends to suffer from a mental disorder in front of her children, perhaps convinced that it’ll make it easier for them to leave her and adapt to their new lives in foster families. At some point, Lilli’s close to giving up, but she survives because of Oskar and him not giving up but fighting to make their dream come true.

And No One Will Separate Us

Thanks to his foster grandmother with the Parkinson’s disease who lives with Oskar and is the only one who seems to really understand him, the boy comes up with an idea to use the money she gave him to “get deported” to Argentina. When he exchanges the sum for euros, it turns out it’s not enough for the journey he’d planned, but he can afford to meet with his mother and sister in the Grand Hotel and eat real schnitzels instead. The next morning, when they are still in bed, they’re again tracked down by the police, they come out of the bed with their hands chained with pink handcuffs bought at a funfair. As comical as it’s poignant, this scene becomes the symbol of desperate family love that’s stronger than any political system.