Like "La Haine", the cult film that in 1995 brought in to global attention the plight of young people from different cultural backgrounds living in France's deprived suburbs, “Welcome” is another example of French cinema that provoked a storm of controversy.
The director Philippe Lioret portrays with brutal honesty the lives of refugees trying to reach the UK from France - the cold, hunger, violence from police and between each other, but also the risks run by those who try to help them. It shows what dirty work that French state does to make both, refugees and charity workers, lives a misery.
The film is set in Calais, a gathering point for illegal migrants, determined to get to England by any means possible, whatever the price. One of them is Bilal (played by novice actor Firat Ayverdi), a 17-year-old Kurd from Iraq, who has spent the last three months traveling illegally across Europe in an attempt to reunite with his girlfriend, who recently emigrated to England. His difficult journey is almost over when he finally reaches the far northern coast of France, and can literally see his destination from across the Channel. But it is here that his journey comes to an abrupt halt as local authorities, and the immigration laws they are enforcing, prevent him from going any further. With no other options left, since he failed to sneak hidden in a lorry, Bilal devises a plan to swim across the bitterly cold waters of the Channel. He heads to the local swimming pool to train, where he's coached by Simon (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged swimming instructor in the middle of divorce process, who quickly divines what his young immigrant pupil is preparing to do. Simon's attempts to dissuade him from his mission fall on deaf, brave ears. Bilal seems oblivious to the danger he faces with his naïve, headstrong optimism (asked what he's going to do in UK answers that he will try to join Manchester United, because he plays soccer well), but Simon, although not entirely sure why he is helping him in his mad quest, clearly admires the boy's sacrifices for love especially when he compares Bilal's passion to his own failed marriage. “I couldn't even cross the road to get you back”, he tells his soon-to-be-ex-wife in a one of the scenes. Despite initial disinterest and to win back the affections of his liberal wife, after her taunt that he stood by and said nothing when the 'illegals' were thrown out of a supermarket for “upsetting the locals”, Simon allows Bilal to stay in his place for a few days. With a time their friendships develops and Simon comes to appreciate the plight of migrants around Calais and the risks charity workers (one of them being his ex-wife) take in helping them. Both characters show enormous strength. Bilal has the strength to do all it takes for love, and Simon has the courage to risk everything for this ambitious, illegal immigrant as very soon, he becomes threaten by local police as well.
The film paints a harsh picture of Calais.“It’s like our US-Mexican border,” says French filmmaker, describing the location for his film. It shows immigrants running away from dogs and police. Cold and hungry, they wander about the town, sleeping in the woods around the port known as “the jungle”. This so-called "jungle", a makeshift camp-site, is the result of the closure of Red Cross-run Sangatte refugee centre in late 2002. Other horrific scenes show migrants hidden in trucks wrapping their heads in plastic bags to avoid carbon dioxide detectors. But most of all Lioret's film was aimed at criticising a French law that makes it a crime to help illegal immigrants. That was one of the real issues behind the film; for Lioret it is “sinful” to have a law that makes helping an illegal migrant a criminal offence in France. What he wants are four little words “à des fins lucratives” (for financial purposes) added to that law; “Yes we must punish those who make money out of misery but no we must not punish solidarity.” He went so far as to compare this situation to Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War, saying the constant raids and arrests are "like something out of the 1940s”; “to see that a decent guy can all of a sudden be charged and imprisoned for helping a migrant is crazy. It feels like it's 1943 and we've hidden a Jew in the basement”. Obviously this comparison upset many people, among them French Immigration minister Eric Besson, who found it “unbearable” and said said Lioret has "crossed a red line" in an effort to generate publicity for the film. For me the reference to Second World War is also a little bit too much but “Welcome” is definitely increasing public awareness about the plight facing immigrants not only in France, but all around the world and that's a good thing. In the end immigration is one of the most important social issues at the moment.
I'm very glad I saw this film, it evoked all the feelings I thought U.S.-Mexican “Sin Nombre” would, but failed to do. Philippe Lioret's film is a superb, personal account of one man's protest against inhuman law system. Though the word 'politics' is never mentioned in this tremendously powerful tale, “Welcome” is clearly political. In the end it's hard to imagine for a drama about immigration in a country as multicultural as France not to be. Very good movie indeed!
We meet Bilal when he's almost at the end of his journey, and never get to know how did he reach that far. But there's a movie that can give some insight into the fortunes of illegal immigrants traveling through Europe: "In this word" directed by British director Michael Winterbottom. The story of Jamal, Afghan orphan already born in exile in Pakistan, shows with great detail in his tremendous journey from Pakistan to London. This is a true story shot in semidocumentary style with no happy ending in sight.