Two men and a border
by Fabien Lemercier
- Welcome is a moving encounter between a French swimming instructor and a young Kurd dreaming of England. A well-scripted and well-researched film on the realities of illegal immigration
The film is set in the northern-French city of Calais, 35 kilometres from the English coast, a city which has attracted hundreds of thousands of international immigrants since the 90s hoping to get to the UK by hiding in trains, ships and trucks that pass through the port. Since the closure of the Sangatte camp in 2002, these illegal immigrants have ended up scattered in the countryside, where they are left to the law of the jungle and forced to live under alarming conditions. Their circumstances is what inspired French director Philippe Lioret to make what is his sixth feature Welcome [+see also:
interview: Philippe Lioret
film profile]. Unveiled in the Panorama section at the 2009 Berlinale, winning the Audience Award and Europa Cinemas label, the film has also been a hit in Lioret's native country, where it has attracted 1.17m filmgoers to date.
Whilst the theme of borders has always been present in cinema down through the years, the latest surge in migration to Europe (seen on other continents as a kind of fortress or Eldorado) has in recent years been the source of inspiration for European filmmakers (among others Nicolas Klotz's The Wound [+see also:
film profile], Costa Gavras' Eden Is West [+see also:
film profile] and 14 Kilometers [+see also:
film profile] by Gerardo Olivares). Each director approaches the subject with their own style and sensibility. Lioret focuses on human frailty and the character's story. With Welcome he succeeds in striking the right balance between documentary elements (the restless wanderings of migrants in Calais between soup kitchens, police and legal checks, attempts to cross the Channel, money worries, a climate oscillating between solidarity and tension, volunteer help and the denunciation of some immigrants) and the impulses of melodramatic fiction depicting two main characters.
Written by the director himself and Emmanuel Courcol, the story involves an encounter between a young Kurd, Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) stranded at Calais port from where he hopes to reach England to join the woman he loves, and Simon (Vincent Lindon), a swimming instructor depressed by the events of his divorce. Although never especially concerned with the fate of migrants - whom his wife looked after as a volunteer - Simon decides to help Bilal in an attempt to impress his wife and win her attention. Bilal, desperate, is intent on swimming across the Channel. Aside from the swimming classes and the roles of student and coach, the two gradually become friends (both are lonely, motivated by feelings for an inaccessible woman and Simon has never had any children). This leads the swimming instructor into danger as French law punishes anyone providing help to illegal immigrants (article L622-1). The law, which has triggered a virulent debate in the French press between the director and the Minister for Immigration on the film's release, lends Welcome a useful dramatic impulse on top of the success or the failure of Bilal's highly risky crossing.
Without yielding to the calls of Manichaeism - the primary obstacle of this subject's genre - Lioret discreetly depicts the grey areas of humanitarian solidarity. For example, when Simon discovers that an immigrant staying with him steals one of his medals, a policeman warns him (after somebody gives him in anonymously) against helping illegal immigrants too much. The honesty of the treatment is reflected perfectly by Lindon (a strong contender for a Best Actor Cesar in 2010 after previous wins in 1993, 2000 and 2008). Indeed, the actor delivers a splendid and judicious interpretation of a modern man who, like any other, has personal problems that, here, heighten his frailty and lead him to rediscover a certain self-esteem by opening himself up to a stranger whose search for a better world finally resonates in him much more than he had initially thought it would.
After the success of Don't Worry, I'm Fine [+see also:
film profile] (887,000 admissions in France and a 2007 Cesar for Best Upcoming Actress and Best Supporting Actor, nominations in the categories of Best film, Best Director and Best Screenplay), Welcome marks a significant turning point in the career of Lioret, a director who explores sensibility and everyday life on the fine line that separates popular and arthouse film.
Welcome was produced by Nord-Ouest Films in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Studio 37 and CRRAV.
(Translated from French)