Stylist contributor Dahaba Ali Hussen reviews His House – the new Netflix film that spotlights the story of refugees in a horror format – through the lens of her mother’s own journey from a war-torn land.
A true horror film makes you question what to fear first. With His House, you have a choice – death, displacement, discrimination or demons – your heartbeat will be going through some interval training during the film.
When we first meet our protagonists, Bol and Rial, they are fleeing their home country of South Sudan because of factional infighting. As the opening scenes unfurl, we see the couple following the same migration routes that many refugees, including my own mother, have taken to Europe.
Once they have reached the ‘safety’ of the UK, they are taken to a detention camp as their status is deliberated. I, myself, was born in a detention camp in the Netherlands and spent my first few months on Earth comforted by the blissful ignorance of a baby.
Our couple were not awarded this naivete, and they are made to feel like the “lucky ones” when the Home Office stamps them with the coveted seal of asylum status. Now they are granted bail from the centre, given a new home and yet their journeys only become more nightmarish.
Of course, the viewer is already shaken at this point even though we have only had a glimpse into the harrowing ordeal they must have endured through their long and fraught voyage to the UK. And now, against a backdrop of civil strife they must embark on the dreaded path towards ‘integration’.
Here, gender comes into play: Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) experiences a microcosm of her displacement as she struggles with her bearings on her way to the GP. She sees a group of Black-British boys whom she asks for directions but they only serve to confuse her further whilst simultaneously mocking her accent and directing her “back to Africa”.
A touchy subject – racism within ethnic minorities. When my family and I first moved to the UK, we had to contend with prejudice from communities who were more established in the UK. Rial’s experience, against the overcast urban setting, is a familiar depiction of the sometimes confusing relationship between first, second and third generation immigrants.
In stark contrast, Bal, played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, takes better to the “British” way of life. We see him indulging in some football antics at his local pub, shopping for some “civilian clothing”, and – in a beautifully crafted series of shots – encouraging his wife to use a knife and fork because, as he says repeatedly, “this is our home now”.
It is that fierce determination and unrivalled loyalty that motivates Bal as he is confronted with the ghosts of his past. We learned very early on that the pair had lost their daughter during their migration to the UK and her ghost, alongside the ghosts of their former contemporaries, murmur in the shadows of their new home that was granted to them by their local council.
It isn’t easy being a refugee in any country, and some of my earliest memories involve sitting in local councils waiting to be allocated our next temporary residence. These realities are cleverly demonstrated in a scene between Bal and his local housing officer. When the bumps in the night become too loud to ignore, Bal asks for a new home.
“Why is he biting the hand that feeds him” is a line that stings the viewers ears. Throughout the film, there is a sense that our refugees should be grateful for the opportunity that they have been given here in England.
But following that logic, everyone should be grateful for the baseline luxury of life. Why should two war-stricken individuals living in a derelict home in the UK with questionable immigration status be any more grateful?
At this point in the film, your sympathies lie wholeheartedly with the pair – you can see everything through their eyes and your own pupils widen further as we are taken back in time and witness their footsteps through the streets of South Sudan. They step over dead bodies, hide on rooftops and walk through the night until, a shocking point – you realise they may also be the villains.
It is during this cleverly constructed development that the viewer sees that the entire film may live in the realm of the murky ‘grey area’. For who knows what human beings are capable of when your survival instinct not only kicks in, but is turned up full blast.
Should Bol and Rial be punished for decisions during apolypictic circumstances? It seems as though their consciences thinks they should be. The final thirty minutes of the film sees our pair battling with demons real and imagined as buried truths burst to the surface.
Director Remi Weekes keeps you rooted here in the UK during the course of his powerful debut, while at the same time spiriting you away to another continent, and keeping you trapped within the confines of your mind.
His House is a beautiful and challenging tragedy that is well worth a watch.
Images: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix