Lest you think America has a monopoly on byzantine immigration systems, “Aisha” is here with an unfortunate reminder that it does not. Following the eponymous young Nigerian woman (Letitia Wright) as she attempts to resettle in Ireland, writer-director Frank Berry’s drama of bureaucracy eschews histrionics in favor of a docudrama-like approach that’s all the more affecting for how authentic it feels. The result isn’t quite Kafka, but it’s closer than it should be.
“Your English is good,” Aisha is told early on by a woman who doesn’t know that nearly everyone in Nigeria speaks it. The interaction is emblematic of her treatment at the hands of almost everyone she meets: not malicious, but also hopelessly naive to her plight — and making no attempt to understand it. She’s been living in a Direct Provision Center for more than a year, a kind of limbo in which she’s physically in the country but restricted from fully integrating into it. The rules she’s required to follow are as complicated as they are unforgiving, and seemingly designed to be broken so that anyone caught committing a minor infraction can be cycled out of the system. All the while, she’s preparing for hearings about her asylum application and occasionally speaking to her mother (who’s still in danger related to the traumatic event that prompted Aisha to flee in the first place) back home.
Even when answering questions from the bureaucrats who hold her fate in their hands, you can tell Aisha is holding back — sometimes out of fear, sometimes because telling the whole truth would be too painful. We, too, only get the shortened version of her backstory in dribs and drabs. Aisha chooses every word carefully, which is to be expected of someone in her fraught situation, but also counter to her goals at times. She’s constantly being asked to elaborate, as though she won’t be granted asylum unless she offers the most graphic play-by-play of her trauma possible. A cynical reading of the situation would suggest that the way this compounds her trauma isn’t a coincidence but rather the point.
Over the course of the film, she gets moved twice, is forced to give up her part-time job, learns of a death in the family and is told she can’t attend the funeral unless she rescinds her application and stays in Nigeria permanently, among other injustices. If you have a hard time watching one bad thing after another happen to a good person who’s powerless to stop any of it, her laundry list of trauma may seem too much to bear. And while passive and/or helpless characters rarely make for the most engaging protagonists, the sensitivity with which this story is told coupled with Wright’s performance makes for an experience that’s never less than engaging.
Wright, whose star-making performance in “Black Panther” led to roles in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” and Kenneth Brannagh’s “Death on the Nile” adaptation, was also just at Cannes with Agnieszka Smoczynska’s “The Silent Twins.” Taken together with her part in McQueen’s acclaimed anthology series, these two new films suggest a desire to parlay her box-office drawing power into auteur-driven projects that allow her to showcase her range in a way that Marvel blockbusters might not. The results speak for themselves: Wright delivers her most moving performance yet here, with Aisha’s sorrows reflected in her eyes and etched on her face in one scene after another.
She maintains a quiet resolve throughout, which at times feels like a small act of defiance — whether by design or not, this system is as demoralizing as it is dehumanizing. Regardless of whether or not she’s permitted to stay in the country, however, Aisha refuses to lose herself in the process. There isn’t much that can’t be taken away from her, but her dignity is never in question.