Thursday, 28 April 2011


Directed by Philippe Lioret
France, 2009

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.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Me Life Without Me

Directed by Isabel Coixet
Canada/Spain, 2003

Young woman in her early 20s discovers she's dying of cancer. She uses the little time she has left trying to do the things she always wanted and setting things up for those around her. Yes..., if you read the synopsis of this film, it sounds unbearably maudlin and weepy. And yet it is such a good film!

Ann (Sarah Polley) is a hard-working 23-year-old mother with two small daughters, a husband who spends most of the time unemployed (Scott Speedman), a mother who hates the world (Blondie's Debbie Harry in a remarkably unglamorous role) and a jailed father (Alfred Molina) whom she has not seen in ten years. She lives with her small family in a trailer on the backyard of her mother's house, in the outskirts of Vancouver and works nights as a cleaner at the local university, a place that reminds her of the life that’s passed her by. Ann knows that by falling pregnant at the age of 17 and getting married with the only men she ever kissed, her first and only love Don, she missed out on a lot of what life has to offer, but it's not all that bad after all. Her life's tough, opportunities very limited, but still she has managed to build a warm, loving family. She is certainly not an unhappy person.

Then, one day, during a medical checkup following a collapse, she is diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer and told she has only about two months to live. The cancer has already spread and become inoperable. This prognosis seems so cruelly unjust that even the doctor can hardly utter it. The scene when Ann is delivered the news is really devastating. In a way it also feels ironic, since she has never really lived her life anyway. Ann takes it quite stoically. Using the cover of anaemia, she decides to keep her condition a secret, and refuses to tell anybody, not even her loved ones, about her impending death. Instead she makes a "Things to Do Before I Die" list. These range from the mundane (getting her hair and nails done, smoking and drinking), to really significant ones (making someone fall in love with her). Little by little she completes all of them, visiting her estranged father in prison, improving relationship with her mother, having an affair with another man. Her decision to "sleep with another man, just to see what it's like", leads her to an encounter with Lee (Mark Ruffalo), which evolves in something much deeper than she probably expected starting it. Most importantly she's prearranging details of her family's life following her death, of “her life without her”. That includes finding a new women for her husband that her daughters will like and recording series of birthday tapes for her two daughters for every year up until they 18, preparing them for a life without her.

“My Life Without Me” was the first English-language project from Pedro Almodóvar's El Deseo company and the directing debut of Isabel Coixet. The plot was inspired by a short story by Nanci Kincaid titled "Pretending the Bed Is a Raft" but Coixet made a few changes, most notably she let the main character keep her terminal illness a secret from her family and friends. While Coixet's decision allowed her to avoid overdosing on sentimentality, for many viewers Ann's refusal to share the news with those that most deserved to know was very troubling. They couldn't believe anyone would be so cruel as to deny her loved ones the chance to say goodbye. But she simply does not want to see people around her with long faces, and obsessed with her approaching death. Through a series of beautiful and poignantly honest recordings to her family, Ann explains her choices and asks for forgiveness. Preparation of these recordings are the film's best scenes - well-acted, well-scripted, deeply touching, often emotionally devastating. In one of those scenes, Ann sits alone in a car trying to speak clearly into her tape recorder. "Now you're five," she says, before kissing the microphone. A few tapes later she says to her other daughter: "If you get a new mum, try and love her, OK?"

It is a smart and charming film, although sometimes I've found the plot too contrived. The moment when this attractive young girl, also named Ann, moves in next door and shares the story about conjoined twins, the movie loses a bit of its credibility it had maintained up to that point. Also Coixet's use of extreme close-ups is sometimes nagging. What Coixet has done splendidly was the choice of actors. A cast of indie-flick darlings is extremely well-assembled, and adds some quirkiness to the film (“Pulp Fiction” Maria de Medeiros, appears as a braid-wearing hair stylist obsessed with Milli Vanilli). The greatest of them is of course Sarah Polley, her subtle, understated performance is particularly impressive and makes this movie work. She's so ordinary in her extraordinary condition. In “My Life Without Me” she doesn't play a survivor, she's really tender, vulnerable. But there is no lapse into melodrama, and blessedly few tears. Instead of this there is plenty of sweet moments and quite a lot of ironic humour. The rest is told with silence, the prospect of incredible pain and suffering is there, but we actually never get to see it. It's a different take on the portrayal of terminal illness.

“My Life Without Me” is low-key, thoughtful, very touching and very sad but also quite a buoyant film. It has a first-rate cast and surprisingly lot of humour and joy in it. In essence it's a kind of fairy tale. Strange to write it about a film with such a serious subject but that is how it feels.... Beautiful, sad fairy tale about the efforts to live the life to the fullest and leave some legacy behind.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Official Story

original title: La Historia Oficial
Directed by Luis Puenzo
Argentina, 1985

"The Official Story" was a winner of many awards, including the Oscar in foreign language category, being not only the first Argentinian film to win it (the second would be "The secret of their eyes" in 2010), but actually the first Latin American that has achieved it. Not that getting an Oscar really mean something... After all Oscars never had credibility for those who seriously took cinema as an art form. There has always been a very heavy political and commercial sense of purpose attached to these awards. Most probably this is why “The Official Story” has won it. It may not be a great movie from a strictly cinematic point of view and it represents quite conventional approach to narrative, but in terms of political and emotional intensity it's big. It was made shortly after the Falklands/ Malvinas War which brought the end of military regime that governed the country from 1976 to 1983, and the courage of everybody involved in the project was enormous.

"The Official Story" is almost textbook example of how to use a personal story to tell and illuminate much larger one. The plot is an intensely political. Through the story of a single family and one woman's realisation of unknowing complicity to the reign of terror, the film deals with the horror of Argentina's ‘dirty war’, when thousands of suspected enemies of the state were taken to clandestine prisons where they were tortured and murdered. It also raises questions concerning the fate of children who were taken from their prisoned parents and given to childless families living in good terms with military regime. While doing so, the director of the film opted for a quite interesting perspective and focused not on the mothers who lost their children, but on a woman who gained a child.

Alicia (Norma Aleandro) and Roberto (Hector Alterio) are happily married, affluent couple living comfortable life in Buenos Aires with their adopted daughter, the five year old Gaby (beautiful performance of Analia Castro). She's a high school history teacher, he's a prosperous businessman that has successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder owing to his connections with the military leadership. Alicia's well ordered, easy and happy life begins to fall apart after an unsettling reunion with her long-time friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), that has just returned to Argentina after living several years in exile in Europe. During an evening together, she reveals in vivid detail that years ago she was taken from her home, held prisoner and tortured for more than a month by members of the former regime as they attempted to extort from her the whereabouts of her "subversive" partner. From Ana Alicia learns that many others had been held prisoner, tortured, murdered, and that infants had been taken from their mothers and handed over to families related to the military junta. Ana's story makes Alicia uncomfortable, as she starts to wonder about her adopted child's true origins. She has no idea where Gabi came from, it was Roberto who arranged the adoption. She questions her husband to unravel the mystery and clear her conscience about the situation, but he dismisses her, saying that she should not be concern with it. It's easy to see that her husband knows more about their adopted daughter’s origins than he is willing to acknowledge. Alicia finds herself asking more and more questions, and since Roberto is aggressively evasive and always reacts badly when Alicia enquires into Gaby's parentage, she slowly begins to suspect that the baby her successful husband brought home five years before is the daughter of a murdered political prisoner.

A further area of upset concerns Alicia's history classes. Her students start questioning her strict adherence to the history she presents solely from the government-approved books. Alicia always believed only what she read and during the course sticked to official textbooks and historical documents but her students are routinely disbelieving it and contesting that “history is written by assassins”. Some of her radicalised by political events of recent years students bring her photos of 'desaparecidos', the victims of the military government’s repression of real and imaginary leftist groups, people taken by the army and never returned. Tormented by the information that Ana revealed and those that her students share with her, Alicia gradually starts to doubt in the ‘official story’ and decides to investigate herself the circumstances of her adopted daughter’s birth.

In her increasingly frantic and desperate search, Alicia meets Sara (Chela Ruiz), member of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, woman whose daughter and son-in-law disappeared during 'dirty war'. Misunderstanding the situation and assuming that Alicia is also looking for her relatives, Sara helps her by showing numerous albums with the people who were abducted and tells the story of her own family. It seems almost certain that Gabi is her grandchild. Appearance of a Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a large group of women who demonstrate regularly demanding to know what has happened to their missing children and grandchildren, is a turning point in Alicia's life that leads to political awareness. The movie requires some knowledge of Argentina's history and society. While it is completely possible not to know about previous regime's practices on adoptions, it is still not easy to believe that an educated woman could be as oblivious as Alicia to the horrors being committed in her country. But in fact many members of the Argentinian middle class were only vaguely aware of the disappearance of people, tortures and other atrocities committed during this most sinister and dark episode in Argentina's history.

Alicia learns a lot, and comes to know her society as she had never imagined it. The discovery of the shady dealings of her husband who has prospered greatly in business with the Americans and generals during the military regime ruins her marriage. Roberto combines power and softness, tenderness toward Alicia and Gaby with ruthlessness toward those he considers troublemakers. His wife may be an innocent, but he knew reality behind the previous system very well. The viewer can only imagine what he has seen and done in his climb to success.

It is a movie that asks some very difficult questions, like: should the mothers of children adopted during military regime investigate their origins? Is their own love to them less true? What would be "best" for those children? It shows some positive changes in Argentina. The fact that Alicia’s friend Ana is able to return to the country after being tortured and exiled can be interpreted as a civil triumph. Similarly, the students’ rejection of the ‘official story.’ It also shows the church’s failure to react to political realities, Alicia's priest refuses to help or even listen to her. Now, many years later we know about church complicity to the regime.

“The Official Story” imposes no ideology or doctrine, the first-time director Luis Puenzo is simply committed to human rights. Rather than dramatising the crimes of the dictatorship, the director has used a middle class family to tell subtly the sufferings of Argentinian society during the the years of dirty war. Thousands of people really were murdered in Argentina and the country has still not got over the nightmare suffered under the dictatorship. Military officers involved in killings are even now brought to justice, the efforts to identify potential children of the ‘desaparecidos’ are still ongoing and the scars have not healed yet. I'm not sure if that kind of trauma can ever be healed...