Welcome (Director: Philippe Lioret): The title of Philippe Lioret’s latest film drips with irony. The French coastal town of Calais, where the film is set, resembles a fascist police state, at least when it comes to illegal immigrants and anyone who tries to help them. We meet 17-year-old Bilal, an Iraqi Kurd, just as he arrives in Calais, after a harrowing three-month journey from Iraq. He’s desperate to get to London to be reunited with his girlfriend Mina, who obtained legal immigration status a few months earlier. Calais is a gathering point for hundreds of illegals trying to get to England, and the police are ruthless in harassing and turning them back.
Bilal first attempts to cross by paying a “handler” 500 Euros to be smuggled over in the back of a cargo truck, but he is caught and turned back. Soon he is splashing around awkwardly in the local pool, where ex-champion Simon (Vincent Lindon) is a coach. Bilal uses some of his remaining cash to pay Simon for swimming lessons, and it soon becomes clear to the older man that his young student is planning an audacious swim across the English Channel. Seeing a chance to impress his estranged wife, who volunteers at a soup kitchen for illegal immigrants, he takes the boy into his home and begins training him more seriously. His own swimming career and his marriage are in ruins, but Bilal awakens his idealism and his paternal instincts. Unfortunately, his snooping neighbour disapproves and calls the police, who practically break Simon’s door down looking for anything suspicious.
This gives the film the flavour of a thriller even as it functions more like a melodrama. The mournful piano score isn’t really necessary when the story and characters are this sympathetic. Lindon is an actor with just the right look, his sad and expressive eyes always communicating more than his gruff exchanges with Bilal, mostly in English, both characters’ second language. Firat Ayverdi, who plays Bilal, does a convincing job of developing from a beginner in the water to a strong swimmer, although his dramatic arc is less ambitious.
Though I often wondered why the police didn’t just look the other way (it would get the migrants out of France, after all), or why Simon didn’t just smuggle Bilal to London himself in his car, the film does a great job of conveying the plight of refugees in Europe, who are not welcome but who are also forbidden to leave. The unfair reality is that some of them make it where they want to go, and many of them don’t. More shocking than that, though, was seeing the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust that has seeped into the formerly liberal culture of Europe. Though many of the aspects of the film felt melodramatic, the horrifying reality of people being prosecuted for such humanitarian acts as feeding or sheltering refugees cannot be denied.
Welcome was released on DVD in Canada by E1 Entertainment on March 2. Buy it from Amazon.ca. Extra features include a 25-minute making-of featurette that, alas, is only in French.