Thursday, 25 March 2010


Palace Films
Now Showing

I've always thought of France as one of the world's most liberal countries, after all, the French revolution was all about liberty, equality and fraternity, no? But in recent years, no doubt led by a post 9-11 mindset, French politicians have been calling for a ban on hijabs, the headscarves worn by Muslim women; first in schools and, more recently, on public transport.

This fear of the other is at the heart of Welcome, the political and quietly angry new film by Philippe Lioret. In the seaside town of Calais, illegal immigrants congregate on the docks, hoping to pay for passage to England or other parts of Europe, either by boat or, more precariously, hidden in the cargo holds of trucks which involves the risk of asphyxiating on carbon fumes.

It is in this milieu that 17-year-old Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) finds himself. Having travelled from Iraq, mostly by foot, he is headed for England. Why? The reason any 17-year-old does anything – for love. The state of his home country also has something to do with it. Apprehended trying to cross into England via truck, Bilal soon hits on the idea of crossing via the Channel – swimming the Channel, that is.

While practising at a local pool, Bilal strikes up a friendship with Simon (Vincent Lindon), the swim centre manager. Simon is separated from his wife Marion (Audrey Dana), a school teacher who volunteers at a make shift soup kitchen feeding the immigrants. This may be the reason why Simon decides to help Bilal – to win her back – inviting him into his home while also providing swimming lessons. This is also where his troubles begin.

I'm not sure how accurate the film's depiction of the French laws are but it seems that merely helping an illegal immigrant – with food, a place to stay, even a ride in your car – will bring you to the attention of the authorities. A fine, even prison could follow. It's not too long before Simon's neighbours are complaining to the police and both he and Bilal are under surveillance.

That doesn't stop Bilal from attempting his crossing, the first of which is unsuccessful; French authorities fishing Bilal out of the water not too far off the Calais coast. His second attempt has a different result entirely.

Lioret made Welcome as a specific response to the Sarkozy government's policy on illegal immigrants but it's neither an issue or a film that is specifically French. Australian audiences may find much to identify with, and feel a little ashamed of, watching Welcome.

But I don't want to dissuade people from seeing the film by giving the impression it's a “message film”. Loiret gets his point across not by hammering but by slowly exposing the humanity at risk: that of those in need of help and those who lose a little by denying them.

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