Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dirty Pretty Things -- illegal activities and illegal immigrants

Director: Stephen Frears, 2002. (R)

In the center of London sits the famous luxury Savoy Hotel off the Strand. Nearby are the seedier and unknown hotels. The fictitious Baltic Hotel is one of these. This West London hotel caters to the cheaper tourist. But it is here that illegal activity and illegal immigrants come together. Prostitution, drug dealing and worse, dirty things take place amongst the pretty chambermaids: dirty pretty things.

Stephen Frears (The Queen) filled this independent film with relatively unknown actors, perhaps underscoring the fact that the main characters, illegals, are unknown. The two leads are played by Audrey Toutou (Amelie), in her first English speaking role, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has gone on to various Hollywood movies, including American Gangster and Salt. Sergi Lopez is the antagonist, though, and he is known to European film buffs, playing the villain in films like With a Friend Like Harry and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Okwe (Ejiofor) and Senay (Toutou) both work in the hotel. Okwe is the night desk clerk while Senay is a daytime chambermaid. When she arrives their intersection allows her to surreptitiously pass off her apartment key to him. Unknown to the others, he is sharing her flat, living on her sofa. Both being illegals, their pay is limited and they are barely able to survive even on that.

To make ends meet, Okwe does double duty as a taxi driver by day, hotel receptionist by night, catching a nap on Senay’s couch. To stay awake, he chews weed, or some other form of drug. Nigerian by birth, his past remains secret for much of the film, although it is clear he is a trained doctor, now forced to work menial jobs in London. Senay, on the other hand, is a Turkish muslim refugee seeking asylum. Her status precludes her from gainful employment and so she has to avoid and evade the brutish police who are after her.

When Okwe finds a human heart in the toilet of a hotel room one night, he is faced with a dilemma. Taking this to the hotel supervisor, Sneaky Juan (Lopez), Okwe wants to see justice done and the police called. But Juan wants nothing of the sort. Too many dirty things take place under his watchful eye. And as Okwe begins to investigate on his own, he begins to turn over rocks revealing the underbelly of London society where illegals are exploited.

Confronted, Juan explains: “I make people happy.” He is a middle man and both those upstream and downstream seem to appreciate what he is doing. Yet, it is both illegal and immoral. Without any rights and without the ability to turn to the law, the illegal immigrants resort to such illegal activities to survive. Lack of options ensures their ongoing exploitation.

Injustice, oppression and exploitation of foreigners form a central theme of the Torah, the Israelite’s Bible. Moses wrote in Exodus 22:21: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Further, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.” (Lev. 19:33). And: “You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.’” (Lev. 24:22) The reason for these commands is explained by Moses in Deuteronomy (10:17-19): “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners.” Justice and mercy for the illegals (and the legals) is based on the very nature and character of God himself.

Juan eventually forces Okwe to make a tough choice: one path will have him break the law but help Senay, the other will keep the law (and leave his conscience clear) but will harm Senay. Which will he choose? For many illegals, morality is not as black and white as it is for Okwe. Life offers many shades of gray morality.

Dirty Pretty Things takes some time to establish characters. Once the heart is found, the film finds its heart and picks up pace. As the mystery unfolds, the secrets of the characters are slowly revealed, along with some sweet plot twists, until it reaches a satisfactory conclusion.

The underlying message of the film is highlighted in a scene where Okwe, Senay and Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a prostitute, confront a sleazy businessman. The man asks them, “How come I’ve never seen you people before?” Okwe answers, somewhat defiantly, “Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And [do sexual acts for you]” How often do we see these invisible people? Are our eyes open to those who serve in menial positions? If we are not, now is the time to start seeing.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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