Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Philippe Lioret
Stars: Vincent Lindon, Firat Ayverdi, Audrey Dana, Derya Ayverdi, Thierry Godard, Murat Subasi, Olivier Rabourdin, Mouafaq Rushdie.
One of the standout films in the recent French Film Festival was Philippe Lioret’s Welcome, a powerful, moving and deeply affecting drama exploring the plight of illegal Kurdish refugees in contemporary France. There is a wonderful irony to the film’s title as the French government has passed strict laws that prohibit people from lending assistance to these refugees, also referred to as “clandestines.” Shops are banned from serving them, and people are prohibited from sheltering them, under severe penalties ranging from hefty fines to imprisonment.
One such refugee is Bilal (played by newcomer Firat Ayverdi), a 17 year old Kurd, who has walked some 4000kms across Europe to reach the coastal town of Calais. Bilal wants to go to England to see his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the English government wants nothing to do with these refugees either. Stringent border security measures have prevented him from being smuggled across the Channel in trucks and ferries. In desperation, Bilal determines that the only way to reach England is to swim across the Channel. This is a mammoth undertaking that even professionals need to train for months before attempting; and even then they have a support staff.
Bilal begins to swim laps in a local pool, which is where he meets Simon (Vincent Lindon), a former swimming champion, At first Simon wants nothing to do with Bilal and his mission. But, against his better judgement, Simon soon begins to take pity on the boy and helps him, at the risk of being arrested. Simon also hopes to impress his ex-wife (Audrey Dana), a school teacher with a conscience who sometimes helps run a soup kitchen catering to the illegal refugees on the docks.
However, Simon becomes something of a father figure to Bilal, and the relationship between the pair provides a human dimension to the drama. However, Lioret carefully avoids any hint of sentimentality. Newcomer Ayverdi is very affecting, and he gives a very natural and impressive performance as the determined teenager. Lindon is also very good as Simon, and he has a weathered and beaten look that is perfectly suited to his character.
Lioret offers up a fairly bleak portrait of life for these illegal immigrants who exist in a sort of limbo around the docks of Calais. He brings a grim authenticity to the scenes of people smuggling, which sometimes end in tragedy. Lioret has used a number of non-professional actors to play the illegal immigrants, and they are quite credible. Welcome is very political in its criticism, and manages to draw subtle parallels with both South Africa’s apartheid regime and the persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930s. The film is also critical of the police and the way they enforce the inhumane laws and deal with the influx of displaced refugees.
Welcome addresses an important social issue. It is filled with a sense of hope and humanity and spirit, but it is also suffused with a very palpable sense of anger and disbelief at the repressive immigration policies of the Sarkozy government. The film has stirred up a great deal of controversy in France, where it was screened at a special sitting of Parliament. The film has also been screened for several other European governments, and has won a number of awards for its humanitarian concerns.