‘Tori and Lokita’–The Dardennes’ Most Powerful Look At Reality Yet: Cannes Review

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© Christine Plenus

Tori and Lokita forces viewers to confront contemporary injustices through a heart-shattering refugee drama centred on a beautiful and intense friendship.

★★★★★

Cannes’ favourite brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have returned to the competition with a brutally honest tale about the trafficking of young migrants. Coinciding with the UK’s decision to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, the film highlights the absurdity of stringent border rules through the story of two best friends, one with a piece of paper that grants him legal status, and one without. The Dardennes’ body of work, which boasts two Palme d’Or winners for Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005), is coloured with politically charged stories focusing on victims of their environments. Each is delicately handled and researched, but powerfully hits audiences with the ugly reality. Tori and Lokita is no different, with a compassionate and shattering insight into the lives experienced by too many.

The first scene of Tori and Lokita opens with an interrogation of Lokita (Joely Mbundu), a teenage girl from Benin living undocumented in Belgium. The camera doesn’t care to comfort or coddle the viewer, placing the audience in the seat of the cold and unsympathetic interrogator with a close-up shot that aggressively lingers on Lokita for minutes. Scrutinising her every move and glance as she hesitates to answer, the immigration officer picks holes in Lokita’s claim that Tori (Pablo Schils) is her younger brother. The power imbalance between a vulnerable and scared teenager, who is forced to lie in a bid to avoid deportation, and an immigration officer, encapsulates the framework of the UK’s hostile environment that treats victims of war, corruption and disaster as targets to be tripped up and forced back out.

Younger and expectedly more innocent than Lokita, Tori still believes his sister can convince the authorities that they are siblings by blood. “The colour of the church door is red,” he advises Lokita, trying to prepare her for any novelty questions that he thinks will be brought up, failing to grasp the actual inconsistencies in their story. Regardless, their bond is stronger than friendship and the organic connection between the two young actors elevates what could have been a solely bleak story to one that is full of heart and charm.

These two protagonists look out for each other as brother and sister, whilst the rest of the characters we meet treat them like dirt on their shoe. One is Betim (Alban Ukaj), the seedy chef and drug dealer who exploits the pair by underpaying them to sell to his regular customers (under the guise of delivering pizza). In an early scene, Betim takes advantage of Tori’s naiveness, asking him to wait outside while he speaks to his sister. Soon after he leaves, Betim coerces Lokita into performing oral sex for money. The camera doesn’t show anything, but Lokita is forced, yet again, to do this because she needs money to send to her mother and siblings who are still in West Africa. This heartbreaking moment presents the gruesome exploitation of vulnerable migrants.

Soon after, crooked members of the church force Lokita into a van, threatening her with violence to pay the money for trafficking her into the country, all whilst simultaneously referring to her as “sister.” The film’s narrative tone and colour palette darken as the pair are torn apart. Lokita agrees to work for Betim, imprisoned in a remote cannabis farm in exchange for fake document papers that will allow her to stay in the country and more importantly, with Tori. Through their separation, the Dardenne brothers tell the harrowing lives of migrants and sex trafficking. To a child and young teen who have already survived a death sentence trip crossing the Mediterranean on lifeboats, the unthinkable challenges we see them encounter in the film are just further obstacles in their bid to be together.

Schils and Mbundu’s performances bring a juvenile innocence to such serious subject matter. Tori and Lokita are less morally ambiguous, with their motivations presented as more straightforward than the protagonists in the Dardennes’ 2019 film Young Ahmed, where the directors ask for more out of the audience than here. However, the camera follows their movements and expressions with the same improvisation and off-guarded kinetic energy as it does in Young Ahmed. Small quirks and character traits like Tori’s lack of filter and Lokita’s noticeable ability to suppress her own pain for the sake of Tori’s happiness allow the audience to connect to both of them in a way that refugees are often denied through their negative depiction in Western media.

Propelled by the talented young leads, Tori and Lokita is a tale of a beautiful friendship that can’t be shaken by legal documents or the abusive adults in their lives who strive to take everything away from them. In a world filled with hate and prejudice, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne offer the protagonists agency and an identity beyond their settlement status. Whilst the plot is driven by the unscrupulous politics of Western Europe, the film’s momentum builds with heart.

The Verdict 

Without succumbing to sensationalism or getting too intertwined with political debate irrelevant to the lives of vulnerable immigrants, Tori and Lokita is a difficult watch but necessary portrayal of the injustice occurring in every corner of the globe.

Words by Alexandria Slater

This film screened as part of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, find the rest of our coverage here.


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