Thursday, May 6, 2010

Illegal Immigration, French Style

Firat Ayverdi, left, & Vincent Lindon in WELCOME (Photo: Film Movement)

Directed by Philippe Lioret

With Vincent Lindon, Firat Ayverdi, Audrey Dana, Derya Ayverdi, Thierry Godard & Selim Akgul

The French film Welcome accomplishes a near-miraculous balancing act, dramatizing the plight of illegal immigrants without sentimentalizing or cheapening such potentially explosive subject matter. Bilal, a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee from Iraq, has made his way (with difficulty) across Europe over the course of three months in the hopes of reuniting with his girlfriend living in England. But when he finally reaches the coastal town of Calais in northern France, the authorities prevent him from going any further. So now that he’s stuck on the French side of the English Channel, Bilal comes up with an audaciously foolhardy idea: he’ll swim across.

Enter Simon, a swimming instructor at the local pool whose personal life is in shambles. He’s currently going through divorce proceedings instigated by his wife, Marion (Audrey Dana). After Bilal shows up at the local public pool asking Simon for lessons, the instructor hopes that helping the young man will put him back into the good graces of Marion, who volunteers at a soup kitchen assisting the many immigrants who currently call the area home. But, of course, nothing goes as planned, and soon Simon skirts the law in his efforts to help Bilal train for his arduous swim across the English Channel. Even Marion wonders why he has become so committed to one teenaged Kurdish refugee.

Director Philippe Lioret doesn’t preside over a didactic debate about the pros and cons of illegal immigration. He instead shows enormous sympathy for those who, for whatever reasons, have taken it upon themselves to try and make new lives in a new country. He also shows the nuanced development in Simon’s own thinking on illegals, demonstrated in two remarkable sequences. The first, at the local supermarket, has his wife taking the manager and a security guard to task for barring non-white immigrants from entering the store under the reasoning that shoppers don’t want them there. She insists that their presence doesn’t bother her, but Simon remains silent during the confrontation, much to her dismay. Later, after Bilal has spent many nights in his apartment, Simon is confronted by a nosy, xenophobic neighbor, who insinuates that Simon’s having a “special” relationship with the young man, to which Simon responds angrily, physically responding to the accusation.

Most satisfying about Welcome is how its characters continually evolve as their relationships become more complicated. Simon initially is indifferent to Bilal’s plight, but watching this determined young man practice his endurance training day after day convinces Simon to become his mentor and, against his nature (since he has no children), a father figure. Bilal, first seen as just one of the huddled masses unable to leave France for England, attempts through sheer force of will a heroic, if reckless, attempt to make a long-shot dream a reality. Lioret resists attempts to turn Welcome into a rousing audience-pleaser; rather, he keeps his film (and its characters) grounded in reality. The ending may be bittersweet, but it is also honest, as Simon has grown wiser and more open emotionally.

Vincent Lindon, fast becoming the French film industry’s go-to Everyman, portrays Simon with his usual low-key bluntness, giving a textbook lesson in the virtues of understatement. Newcomer Firat Ayverdi plays Bilal with an authority that persuasively reveals what’s at stake for a remarkable young man whose only crime, in the eyes of Lioret, is that he was born in the wrong country.
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