Strangers in Strange Lands
Movie still

Films about traveling to unfamiliar places.

If you were to rent a movie from your local video store – do those still exist? – or pick one from your Netflix “recommended” list, there’s a good chance it’s going to be set in a suburban high school or on a New York City street corner. Surprisingly, there just aren’t that many movies out there that follow a character on a journey to a foreign place, where the protagonist tries to survive, make a living, meet people, live, create or find something on their own. This list concentrates on interactions between people and places, where characters voluntarily immerse themselves in a new setting. While the archetypal road trip movie might come close to exploring these themes, we’re going a step further here.

Directors torn between cultures often tell stories along these lines. For example, Fatih Akin, a Turkish-German director, makes films that deal with plots revolving around Turkish immigrants in Berlin. Director Peter Weir is originally from Australia, but many of his movies are stories told from somewhere else in the world. And Werner Herzog’s body of work is an ongoing study of the human condition in unconventional places. This list is a starting point in an effort to group these directors with a wandering gaze.

In Another Country (2012)

In Another Country is a funny and poetic film, about the interactions that travel forces its main character towards, Anne (played by Isabelle Huppert) who is vacationing in a coastal town in Korea. There, she meets a lifeguard and other gregarious locals. The slight awkwardness in the acting and dialogue are, at first, puzzling, but the viewer quickly understands that this storytelling technique lends itself to the credibility of the film’s motif – being lost in translation in a foreign country. This is especially apparent when the characters are forced to converse in a language none are fluent in: English.

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Peter Weir’s movies have been set in a number of different countries and his stories are all about adapting to new surroundings (See also: The Year of Living Dangerously [1982]). Allie Fox, the film’s protagonist, fed up with consumerism, decides to leave America – “The present day world all over is pretty f’d up.” He travels to the jungles of Central America with the hopes of building his own utopia along with his family. The Mosquito Coast‘s unconventional plot and amazing cast (Harrison Ford, River Phoenix, Helen Mirren) manages to uproot the viewer from social order straight into a manmade heaven-on-earth.

Alice in the Cities (1974)

German journalist and photographer Phil Winter finds himself uninspired when trying to write an article on the American East Coast. After a delayed flight in a New York airport, Winter unexpectedly becomes host to an estranged woman and her little girl, Alice, for a night. He wakes the next morning to find the woman gone and a note reading, “Take Alice. I’ll meet you in Amsterdam.” Saddled with Alice – a vibrant little girl full of character – Winter begins on a journey in search of inspiration, self-discovery and companionship. Alice in the Cities is Wim Wender’s first feature film from his Road Movie series and proves to be a charming film about travel and finding friendship in unlikely places.

Gravity (2013)

“You should see the sun shining on the Ganges. It’s amazing.” With these words, the film establishes George Clooney’s optimistic character in Gravity, the spacesuit-wearing embodiment of the fantasist in us all. Throughout his appearance in the film, he gazes down at the Earth from a wrecked spacecraft with an unadulterated – and uncommon – affection for humanity. Beyond being a space-movie, Gravity is really a celebration of being homeless and away from home. It’s a thrilling ride, stripped of politics, violence and cultural prejudices. In space, everyone forgets where he or she comes from and simply relishes in humanity. It’s no wonder that we’ve also seen a recent short film, Overview, about the cognitive shift that takes place when someone sees the Earth from space, and realizes there isn’t that much that separates us.

Eskiya (1996)

Eskiya – “Bandit” in Turkish – tells the story of a mountain bandit from the eastern regions of Turkey who just got out of prison after serving a 35 year prison sentence. Going back to his village, he finds it underwater and deserted after the construction of a downriver dam. Realizing that times have changed, and with nowhere to go, he makes his way to Istanbul, where you see him cross a street for the first time in his life.


Sorcerer (1977)

Sorcerer is a Hollywood remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French film Le Salaire De La Peur (“The Wages of Fear”) (1958) – probably one of the most uncomfortably intense thrillers ever made. Both take place in the South American jungle and involve some downright incredible truck driving, entirely unaided by special effects. Although Clouzot’s film better captures how isolated the whole setting really is, Sorcerer proposes a slightly more diverse cast of characters with clearer back-stories. Watch an American, an Arab, a Hispanic hitman, and a Frenchman (who for some reason also speaks German) drive two trucks loaded with fragile explosives through the Amazonian jungle. Be sure to watch the original first to appreciate the remake.

Dead Man (1995)

Most neo-noir films deal with the average Joe, who manages to get himself into trouble without even trying, and is never quite sure how he ended up in the situation he’s in. This one is no exception. Set in the 19th century, Jim Jarmusch’sDead Man follows Johnny Depp’s character as he travels West, to apply for a job. He accidentally kills someone, turning him haplessly into a fugitive on the run from both the police and bounty hunters. A Native American, called Nobody, takes care of him and leads him to spiritual enlightenment. Bonus: If you watch this film, you get to see Johnny Depp spooning with a dead baby deer.

The Flying Kebab (2010)

Though not quite a movie, this independent web-series follows a Brazilian photographer who decides to travel to Beirut after deciphering a mysterious letter in Arabic. The note mentions an inheritance left for him in Lebanon. Just like the protagonist in In Another Country, Nando struggles in his interactions with the locals, as they help him find his inheritance. What really makes this series stand out, is the fact that he really immerses himself in the many subcultures of Lebanon’s capital. There’s even a live performance by Mashrou’ Leila in one of the episodes.

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About The Author

Yann Traboulsi

Yann Traboulsi

Yann Traboulsi currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon. He grew up in the UAE and spent 5 years working and studying in the USA while obtaining a BFA in Design and Technology. When he's not working on videos, interviews and managing bands, you'll find him either kitesurfing or rock-climbing.


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  • Marilyn Zakhour

    Nice collection