Movie review: Dancers attempt to stop deportation

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As a teen, my head was always spinning. Figuratively. The teenage heads of the Akkouch siblings are spinning literally -- and not just because they're virtuoso hip-hop dancers. They are also dancing around the daily threat of deportation.

"Neukolln Unlimited," a wonderful documentary about an extraordinarily talented German-Lebanese family, is one of the best offerings in the Carnegie Mellon Filmfest's ongoing "Faces of Migration" series, focusing on the agonies and ecstasies of immigrants all over the globe.


'Neukolln Unlimited'

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained
  • Rating: PG-13 in nature.

Film-Buffs Alert: Its one-and-only screening is today at 5:30 p.m. in CMU's McConomy Auditorium, and you won't regret changing your plans to catch it -- and its star musical trio -- in action.

Sweet eldest son Hassan (18) mentors younger bro Maradona (14), while sister Lial (19) does the difficult managing and accounting -- trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Germany is the only home they've ever known, and German is the only language they speak. They live in Neukolln, a densely populated working-class district of Berlin populated largely by immigrants of Turkish, Lebanese and other Arab descent.

Now, after 16 years (and a previous deportation), they've been told that two of them can stay, but the rest of their large, fatherless family must be sent back to Lebanon -- unless the older kids can somehow negotiate their way through the bureaucratic red tape and "asylum consultants" necessary to retain residency permits.

Their only hope lies in their astonishing acrobatic sport-dancing skills, and the performances and TV talent-show contests that may -- or may not -- earn them enough euros to meet the financial-stability requirements for non-German families.

The agony comes from wondering every morning, "Will they come and get my parents?" says Hassan. The youngest boy goes berserk every time the doorbell rings. The previous time one of the girls was hauled away, the "kindest" officer said, "You can take a toy with you, if you want."

The ecstasy comes with the incredible performances of Maradona -- a troubled and troublesome but brilliantly gifted, riveting showman. If he can just stay out of trouble. One infraction can get him not only thrown out of school but also out of the country.

The awful fear, and living from one deportation waiver to the next, puts serious strains on their interrelationships. The analogies to illegal Latinos in the United States are unstated but obvious.

But the dance sequences are terrifically exciting -- as well as redemptive. And the whole film is beautifully paced, photographed and scored.

"Neukolln" is a kind of "Fame: German-Lebanese Style," yet the worried eyes of the kids will haunt you. Anyone who thinks illegal immigration is a political rather than a human problem will be disabused of that simplistic notion by seeing it.

A breakdance demonstration by Abro Straughter and reception with German and Lebanese dishes (courtesy of Hofbrauhaus and Aladdin's Eatery) precede the screening. The film's co-director Agostino Imondi will participate in a live video Q&A conference from Germany (via Skype) after the screening, moderated by University of Pittsburgh German Studies Professor Randall Halle. Admission is $7 ($4 for students).

Information: contact festival director Jolanta Lion at 412-445-6292.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com .


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