With actors Julia Stemberger; Karl Markovics, Meltem Cumbul, Ahmet Ugurlu, Josef Hader; available on DVD
Summary: In the hospital the new-born babies of an Austrian couple and a Turkish family of immigrant workers are mixed up and go home with the wrong parents. By the time the mistake comes to light, the Turkish family has been deported so the Austrian couple begins a confusing odyssey through Turkey to track down the family to their native village in order to exchange their children.
Review by UC Berkeley undergraduate Tanja Mehlo:
Geboren in Absurdistan, a 1999 Austrian drama film directed by Houchang and Tom-Dariusch Allahyari and set in modern times for a native German-speaking audience, features two couples, one Turkish (Emre and Emine Dönmez) and one Austrian (Stefan and Marion Strohmayer), who give birth on the same day at an Austrian hospital. The Turkish couple were Gastarbeiter (foreign laborers) in Austria, as were many Turkish people living in Austria due to the labor shortage at the time. After the Turkish couple is deported to Turkey, the couples find out that their babies have been switched at birth, and the Austrian couple begins an odyssey to Turkey to correct the mix-up. Meanwhile, they evolve in their views of the other culture.
The first few minutes of the film foreshadow the themes that will be significant. While the rest of the film depicts events in chronological order and does not switch between scenes, the first scene does just that: The camera flashes between images of white Austrian children playing and traditional Austrian violin music, and images of border patrols and arrests of dark-skinned migrants – the contrast is stark. Then we see Austrian politicians give a speech about securing the border. This relates to an actual historical event, as Austria took steps to control its borders in the 1990s in reaction to the influx of Eastern immigrants, especially due to the recent Yugoslav wars. From the beginning scenes, the viewer knows that this film will delve into the legal and social issues related to migration and cross-cultural relationships. Mostly, the film follows Stefan’s development from racist to a tolerant and understanding person, thereby engaging in one of the film’s central issues: Xenophobia and the importance of overcoming it, both at a personal as well as societal level.
Both couples’ babies are born in Austria. The title, translated into English as “Born in Absurdistan”, suggests that Austria is a country that is somehow absurd. This is verified in the difficulties the Dönmezs have in registering their child, and later in the ridiculous reason for their deportation: They forgot to officially register their new address. After the couples are reunited in Turkey, Stefan realizes the absurdity of Austria’s immigration laws and helps sneak the Dönmezs into Austria, doing just the thing he had proclaimed as evil in his speech at the beginning of the movie. Other absurdities of Austrian society are also presented: Stefan’s in-laws are strict and their relationship not close, forcing Stefan and Marion to lie about being in Turkey, saying they are on vacation in Kärnten instead. While the downsides of life in Turkey are shown, such as poverty and an all-controlling nosy mayor, the film makes sure to emphasize that life in Austria is not ideal either. Thus, the viewer must appreciate the cultural differences for what they are, without leaning toward either Turkey or Austria as preferable. The differences between the Dönmez’s and the Strohmayers’ treatment from Austrian society are huge. When registering their children, Stefan is able to use his connections to bypass the red tape, but Emre and Emine are sent from office to office and clearly treated as a bother. Already, we see how different the Strohmayers and the Dönmez lives in Austria are, due to their different origins. When the two couples first meet, they fight over a hospital room, and Stefan wins the fight with the support of hospital authorities. Despite the Emre and Emine being well assimilated in Vienna, the Strohmayers’ definitely have the upper hand in their home country.
This changes as the Strohmayers travel to Turkey to retrieve their baby. They are thrown into the experience of being foreign and out-of-place, just as the Dönmezs are in Austria, and, slowly, develop a friendship with the Dönmezs, who have the upper hand in their Turkish hometown. As they find more and more similarities, Stefan learns to overcome his racial prejudices and develops sympathy for foreigners. This development is central to the film, since Stefan, as a born-and-raised ruling-class white Austrian government employee, represents Austria as a whole. In doing so, the film makes strong statement about the importance of Western European society overcoming racism and xenophobia.
Much later, we find out that the babies were never switched after all, and that all this was made up by a nurse who wanted Stefan Strohmayer to learn tolerance. Clearly, her plan worked: Stefan realizes the absurdity of his country’s migration laws and the importance of tolerance and cultural understanding.