Welcome is an amazing film. A tapestry of drama interweaving politics and emotions as if it were some one-of-a-kind, hand-blown glass vase that was so fresh it was still cooling. A brutal depiction of how immigrants in France are treated, it’s also an inspiring portrait of how strong the bonds of love can be. I wish I was hearing more about Welcome here in the States, because I think it is something that should be seen by Americans – especially when you compare our treatment of illegal immigrants to Europe’s. The irony of the title (and its awesomely integrated scene), make this beautiful film a slap in the face that will sting long after.
Set in Calais, France, a coastal town that is also notorious for it’s influx of immigrants (primarily those from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan), the film centers on a seventeen-year old Kurdish boy, Bilal, who is working his way to London to accomplish three things: send money back to his family, play football for the Manchester club and reunite with the girl he loves. Initially we meet him while he’s en route, hiding within the cargo of a tractor-trailer. He’s caught, processed, branded with a number on his hand and soon is standing in front of a judge.
Seeing as though Bilal is a minor and a refugee from a war-torn country, the judge decides not to send him back, but not to let him stay either. So, like many other refugees and illegal immigrants in Calais, he is forced to live in a Ghetto-like community, which is continually raided by law enforcement. It’s so bad, as a matter of fact, that even the individuals who come to provide food to the immigrants are under threat of arrest by the police – labeled “activists,” though all they do is hand out hot meals. Sadly, this was not fictional, for more on it check out the video I’ve embedded at the end of this article.
To make it to London, Bilal will have to sneak into the back of another tractor-trailer that is on its way there. The key to that is learning to breathe with a plastic bag over your head. Because the carbon monoxides that enter the trailer would eventually kill them, illegal immigrants traveling by this method have learned to adapt by breathing in bags (or when possible, venting the trailer somehow). Bilal, however, hyperventilates and panics with a plastic bag over his head. So he’s decided to try another way; a way that hasn’t been attempted by any other immigrants (that I could find record of). Bilal is going to swim across the English Channel.
Calais, of course, is the perfect place for this (and a big reason for some of its immigrant influx); because its beaches are so close, you can almost touch England. On a clear day you can probably even spot the Cliffs of Dover; smartly the director did not choose a clear day for his beach scenes. In order to swim the English Channel, there are a couple of things Bilal will need first: 1.) to learn how to swim, 2.) a friend (for support); and, 3.) a wetsuit (ten degrees for a ten hour swim is pretty heinous). The beauty of the story is Bilal gets everything he needs, and all because of one man. His guardian angel, you may believe.
Bilal’s narrative is only one streak of color in this beautiful work of art; then there’s his guardian angel’s streak. Simon is a swim instructor at the local pool. We meet him as he’s in the middle of a divorce and seemingly dejected with his life as it is. It becomes clear later that he is still in love with his wife, although the same does not go for her. Maybe it’s the banality of running the women’s water exercise class everyday or maybe it’s the fact that his soon-to-be ex-wife is one of the few in Calais who brings aid to the illegal immigrant communities and he wants to re-gain her love, or maybe it’s the need to vicariously re-live the dreams he once had as an Olympic swimmer, but when Bilal finds his way to the pool one day in order to start swimming lessons, Simon is almost immediately sympathetic to his cause. Its part of the beauty of the film that, true to life, there are so many reasons for why people do the things they do.
Because I care so much about this film, I’m careful here to not spoil the story any further, but I will say that the will of Bilal to make it to London is matched only by that of the will of Simon to get him there. It’s a poignant story that unfolds perfectly and needs no frills, special effects or huge stars to carry it (although Vincent Lindon is a big star in my mind after this and Mademoiselle Chambon).
According to Wikipedia, almost 1,000 people have swam the English Channel (whether successfully or not), so in terms of a unique idea – this is not – for Bilal. It’s coupled with his back story and the constantly intriguing presence of Simon in his life that this becomes such a unique, brash idea. Clearly not an impossible feat, but emotionally and physically taxing, we watch in awe as Bilal attempts and attempts again. Its inspiring for not only the viewer, but for Simon who at one point tells his wife (in a superb line of dialogue), how he reveres the young man for crossing foreign lands and his will to cross the Channel all for the love of a girl, when he himself couldn’t even cross the street for his wife.
It seems like less than political of a film as I re-read my thoughts above, but I’ll re-affirm here that it’s only due to the smart direction of the storytelling and the movie that allow it to be digested as this kind of drama, when underneath it all lies the hypocrisy and indecency of the French attitude towards immigration. It’s a powerful film and was a hugely attended one in France when it premiered in early 2009. The director actually held debate with the French Minister of Immigration on the TV program “Ce soir ou jamais.” You can find it online, but only in French. I have, however, posted below another interesting brief discussion with the director from an interview in Australia. Check it out and then see this film. You’ll not be disappointed.