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Olivier Masset-Depasse • director

Cannes 2010

Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse discusses his film Illegal, unveiled in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight 2010

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Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse discusses his film Illegal [+see also:
film review
interview: Olivier Masset-Depasse
film profile
, unveiled in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight 2010 : the exhaustive research that lies within its story, the shocking truths he discovered when preparing for it, and why, although he approached with the fervor of a documentarist, he chose fiction instead.

Olivier Masset-Depasse: It’s the story of a Russian-born mother and son who arrived in Belgium illegally about ten years ago. The protagonist Tania has applied for asylum and been refused. So she decides, for the sake of her son’s future and because she can’t go back to Russia, to remain there as an illegal immigrant. We catch up with them ten years later. She leads a more or less normal life: she works, her son goes to school. Everything is going well until the day she is arrested by the police. She is locked up in a detention centre while her son, who has managed to run away, takes refuge at a friend’s house. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against the State machine, in order to be reunited with her son and escape from this nightmare.

How did you come up with this story?
At the outset, while I was watching the news on television, I found out that 15 kilometres away from my home, there was one of these centres. And you hear words like prison for innocent people, you see children behind bars. I felt uneasy and I started to do some research. The more research I did, the more appalled I was by what I discovered and soon the idea for a film emerged.

I started a year-long investigation with a journalist from Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir and a lawyer from the Belgian Human Rights League. This enabled me to go and see for myself, which is what I really wanted to do. The accounts from people who had spent time in these centres and, above all, the opportunity to visit a specific centre (127 bis Detention Centre, near Brussels) several times enabled me to get a clear idea of what happens there, to get some accurate information.

From that point onwards, I decided to make a real narrative film, to start out with this story of a struggle by a mother who is the emotional vehicle for moving the audience, and be able to speak out and denounce the treatment that illegal immigrants are subjected to in these centres.

This investigation resembles the kind of research undertaken for a documentary. Why did you choose to make a narrative film?
First of all, I’m useless at making documentaries, even though I adore them. They’re two different jobs. I have more of a connection with narrative films, which have the advantage over documentaries of being able to go more deeply into a character’s subjectivity, therefore be a bit more emotional and have a more universal side. The most important thing for me was that the film raised people’s awareness, but that the awareness arose from the heart, not the head. All that inevitably led me back to fiction.

What shocked you the most during your research?
Lots of things. But the real trigger was my first visit to the detention centre, in the wing for women and families, because there was a sort of despair, a rather cloying atmosphere which was very hard for me as I’m a dad. Seeing children in their pyjamas at four o’clock in the afternoon, knowing that they can only go out for one hour a day and seeing their mothers lobotomised by sedatives, I found that immensely hard. It was the first visit which shocked me most because I was at my most naive; afterwards of course you get used to the harshness of things.

Then, in secret, I got the chance to see an expulsion filmed on a mobile phone: there wasn’t necessarily the violence we see in the film, the direct violence occurred afterwards, when the mobile phone got broken. I was watching someone who was being deported, whom they were trying to deport, knowing that two days later, that person hung themself in their detention centre.

Did you intend to make these scenes the most shocking in the film?
I don’t know about the most shocking. We needed drama. In a film, you necessarily have to build up to a climax and I knew from the start that this climax would happen in the airport. I won’t say any more so as not to reveal the film’s ending.

Do you have any subjects in mind for future films?
Yes, I have several subjects in mind. First of all, I must take a rest after this one. The theme of surrogate mothers interests me. I also think we’ve reached a turning point in the commodification of these surrogate mothers, a turning point in humanity. I still need to work on it because these subjects require lots of research. Before I can make a really powerful film, I still have to look in more depth at the subject.

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