Letitia Wright and Josh O’Connor in ‘Aisha’: Tribeca 2022 Film Review


A Nigerian asylum seeker in Ireland is befriended by a local man with his own difficult past in Frank Berry’s tender drama about the agony of bureaucratic limbo. 

A transfixing performance from Letitia Wright as a woman escaping violence and navigating a precarious safe haven anchors Aisha, Irish writer-director Frank Berry’s moving reflection on the plight of asylum seekers butting up against the cold indifference of bureaucracy. Matching Wright scene for scene is Josh O’Connor, again demonstrating that he’s among the best actors to emerge from Britain in the past decade, playing a diffident young man with his own troubled history who offers Aisha the balm of human connection. This tightly focused character study is a tiny film, with an emotional effect in inverse proportion to its size.

Berry (Michael Inside, I Used to Live Here) specializes in social-realist dramas that draw on his background in documentary and community filmmaking. Those roots are evident here in a film that grew out of his research into Ireland’s controversial Direct Provision system, which aims to provide basic needs to individuals awaiting decisions on their applications for international protection. Asylum seekers are housed in hostels or converted hotels, the majority of them for-profit enterprises run by private contractors, while the overall system is controlled by the Department of Justice.

If that implies a situation akin to the prison system, Aisha bolsters that view, illustrating the outsize power that residence managers have over displaced people already struggling with multiple adjustment hardships, with a drawn-out waiting process and a constant risk of deportation hanging over their heads. The Irish government has pledged to dismantle Direct Provision by the end of 2024, replacing it with a not-for-profit system more mindful of human rights.

The film opens with the exuberant physical energy of an African dance class, but that joy is cut short when community center staff override the booking and turf out the group, answering their complaints by telling them to show some respect.

Aisha is a Nigerian who’s been in Ireland for just over a year, working as an assistant at a Dublin hairdressing salon and sending money home to her mother (Rosemary Aimyekagbon), in hiding in Lagos. She fled the country after her father and brother were killed and she was sexually assaulted by men who had loaned the family money to pay for her university education. But those details come only sparingly and at great cost to Aisha as she meets with her solicitor (Lorcan Cranitch) and prepares for the interview that will decide her status and her eligibility to bring her mother to Ireland.

In the watchful stillness of Wright’s restrained performance and in her downcast eyes, we get a stirring sense of an intelligent young woman painfully aware of the trickiness of her situation yet holding onto her dignity and determination against sometimes overwhelming odds. The prickly manager (Stuart Graham) at her residence labels her as insubordinate when she protests the removal of the family sharing her room and again when he learns that she’s been using the microwave against regulations to heat her meals. She aggravates him further by purchasing her own halal meat for the kitchen staff to prepare, pointing out that the food provided by the facility is unacceptable.

Conor Healy (O’Connor) is a quiet young recovering addict with a prison record who takes a job as night-shift security at the residence. Staff are instructed not to talk to the asylum seekers, but Con makes gestures of friendship toward Aisha, sneaking her into the kitchen to use the microwave after hours. They start chatting on the bus to and from work, timidly opening up to each other even as Aisha maintains some distance.

When she’s abruptly relocated to a residence outside Dublin in the County Wicklow countryside — a depressing estate full of container pods fashioned into rudimentary housing units — Aisha is forced to quit her job at the salon, and her work permit proves useless without a car. She pushes Con away, perhaps believing their association is what got her into trouble. But he proves hard to shake, turning up to lend support at her interview for asylum application. He confesses his feelings for her in one of the movie’s loveliest scenes, played with aching feeling by O’Connor.

Berry is careful about balancing the authority figures to avoid making all of them unsympathetic, though the seemingly unmoved bureaucratic response to Aisha’s harrowing experience is heartbreaking as her interviewer notes the absence of police or medical reports after the incidents in Nigeria. Wright’s solemn composure through all this makes it more powerful. Only at the end of a two-year wait and following a tragedy back home, when her initially declined case has come up for appeal, does she show a hint of angry frustration in her statements, saying that she came to Ireland for safety, not for a handout.

Reflecting a cruel reality that can stretch on for years, there’s no definitive outcome here, and the film ends on a note of haunting uncertainty. But DP Tom Comerford’s elegant sense of composition has a way of framing Aisha that suggests her quiet courage and resolve as well as her despair and isolation, the latter notably in gorgeous shots of her bus, looking like a toy as it cruises along country roads amid rolling green hills.

Aside from a single scene in which Aisha reacts to bad news with out-of-character violence, the movie is strengthened by its understatement, which includes the sparing use of Daragh O’Toole’s delicate score. Although Berry never makes the relationship the story’s focal point, there’s hope and warmth in Aisha’s increasing closeness with Con, though the bond between these two damaged people can be called a romance only in the most tentative terms. Even so, their shy smiles as he nervously asks “Can I kiss you?” are deeply affecting.