Monday, April 18, 2011

Welcome -- illegal immigration and inhumanity

Director: Philippe Lioret, 2009. (NR)

Welcome succeeds at creating a compelling drama centered on the inhumanity of French law related to illegal immigration. It does so by making it personal, focusing on a single young immigrant and telling his story. It is actually a tale of two men whose lives have been turned upside-down by lost love. In their collision, we see the cynicism of middle-age erode under the power of personal values encouraged by the sacrificial devotion of youth.

Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) has come to Calais on the French coast from his home in Iraq. A 17 year-old Kurd, he has come over two thousand miles by foot and by hanging under trains. After three months he has arrived at this port-town, that is a mere 20 miles from England. His driving mission: to reach his love, who now lives in London with her parents and family.

A rude awakening comes at Calais. He cannot legally cross the border into England. And there are hundreds like him seeking a way across the channel to their dream of a new start in England. The early scenes looking down on and over the dozens of cargo trucks moving slowly back and forth from the ferries convey powerfully the overwhelming sense of smallness of the individual; these immigrants are at the mercy of vast forces that they cannot control.

Bilal's desire forces him to reconsider his approach, and his determination sees only a few miles of water between him and his woman. Going to the local swimming pool to take lessons, he meets the instructor Simon (Vincent Lindon). Vincent is separated from his wife Marion (Audrey Dana) with a divorce impending. He is losing his love, and his life is becoming empty.

While Simon keeps his emotions and feelings hidden deep within, living passively, Marion pours hers out into positive action. She runs a soup-kitchen with her new boyfriend serving food to the illegals in the "jungle," the woods around the port where these homeless men gather.

Welcome is filmed in a minimalist style with a pungent documentary austerity that focuses on the main characters. And the three actors are up to it. Surprisingly, Ayverdi is not a processional actor. An unknown, he was cast to play Bilal after a long search among Kurdish communities in Europe. He has a naturalness and truth that comes across in his performance, which is balanced by veteran actor Lindon. Together, they create an emotional impact.

Lioret's point in this film is to highlight the absurdity of the French legal system. It is against the law for a French citizen to help these refugees. Though they are homeless and hungry, to offer any assistance including sustenance is to risk arrest, fine and even imprisonment. Lioret likened this in an interview to the occupation during world war 2, when French resistance families harbored Jews and risked death. The French authorities have become akin to the Nazis, according to Lioret.

Regardless of the legalities, social justice would demand meeting a fellow human's needs. Jesus told his disciples that when they served others they are serving him: " For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink" (Matt. 25:35). To turn a blind eye and walk away is to be guilty of the sin of omission (Jas. 4:17).
Initially Simon walks away from Bilal and his needs. But he later offers him help, hospitality and harbor. Whether this is from pure motives or driven by his desire to win back Marion is unclear. Yet in reality, motives are not totally transparent, even to ourselves, as there are usually various factors at play. The result, though, is the same: Bilal finds a friend of sorts who will help him in his attempt to swim the English Channel.

Bilal's determination to reach his love opens up Simon's eyes to life's mission and passion. Once a champion swimmer, his worldview had closed in on himself. His horizon has shrunk to the limits of his living room, a room empty of relationships and hope. Through Bilal, Simon's vision enlarged and his values grew. Even when Marion urges him to walk away, he can no longer make that choice. He has been touched and changed forever, for the good.

Helping people in need will have this effect. It forces us to see our blessings and causes us to re-evaluate our values and our lifestyle. We can become immune to statistics but when we actually meet one of the faceless numbers in person and see his need, feel his pain, it can cut through the hardness of our hearts. We become open to God; we can allow him to use us. In this way, we become the hands and feet of Jesus, serving a meal to a homeless person.

A beautiful scene stands out. Simon walks down to the "jungle" looking for Bilal. He sees him there without a jacket, cold and alone. He takes off his own coat and gives it to him without words. This is a powerful image of Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount: "if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well" (Matt. 5:40).

Unlike a Hollywood film, Welcome ends ambiguously. There are loose ends. But it is clear Lioret wants us to address our own loose ends. Will we offer a welcome to the illegal immigrants in our community? Or will we continue to walk away, showing the unwelcome sign attached to our backs? How would Jesus want us to answer this?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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