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FRANCE: Film on Migrants Sparks Legal Debate

PARIS, Apr 4 2009 (IPS) - A new film on undocumented migrants has sparked heated discussion among the public and lawmakers here.

‘Welcome’ by French director Philippe Lioret is a gritty and moving portrayal of refugees in the port city Calais, where hundreds live in deplorable conditions as they wait for a chance to get into Britain, their “El Dorado” as the filmmaker puts it.

The film tells the story of a young Kurdish refugee from Iraq who takes lessons from a French swimming instructor to learn to swim across the English Channel to Britain, where his girlfriend lives with her family. The refugee, Bilal, dreams of playing one day for Manchester United football club. The swimming instructor, Simon, dreams of winning back his wife, a teacher and charity worker who has left him.

But the police raid Simon’s apartment, and he is charged under a French law that makes it a crime to assist undocumented migrants, even as Bilal embarks on his marathon swim in icy waters.

The film, which won a prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, has stirred discussion and soul-searching about the actual law and the plight of migrants here, as the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy continues with tough measures to reduce the number of undocumented migrants. These measures include arrest and deportation.

Members of the French Socialist Party organised a screening of the film in Parliament on Mar. 17, saying it should be required viewing in order to make people aware that the regulations need changing.


The law states that anyone who aids the entry of undocumented migrants faces five years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros. The Socialist Party has proposed changes that Parliament will consider Apr. 30.

Michel Menard, a socialist member of parliament, wrote in his official blog that the film “is remarkable and constitutes a beautiful testimony to the spirit of solidarity of the thousands of nameless people who try to ease the misery of illegal immigrants, forsaken by the authorities.”

He added that the film also showed the need to change an “absurd” law that confuses these gestures of human solidarity with the “venality” of people who traffic in undocumented migrants.

Many viewers seem to share this view. After a screening recently in a central Paris cinema, the audience was clearly moved, with some individuals wiping away tears.

“The merit of this film is that it shows migrants as human beings and not just as people that should be seen at a distance,” cinema-goer Philippe Prigent told IPS. “But it also raises the question of how far we can go in helping them.”

Mohammed, a 17-year-old who attends an international school in Paris, said the film taught him about the refugees’ strong will to search for a better life. “I was touched by the story of people doing things for love and by how some individuals will try hard to help refugees while others turn their backs.”

Immigration Minister Eric Besson has criticised Lioret for comparing the treatment of undocumented migrants with the French policy of repressing Jews during World War II. Besson said in a radio interview that Lioret’s comparison was “completely intolerable”.

Lioret had commented to reporters: “This could be 1943 and it could be about someone hiding Jews and then being arrested. Except that this is happening today, 200 kilometres from Paris.”

The minister’s criticism has only increased publicity for the film. According to some cinema-goers, they heard about ‘Welcome’ through the controversy.

Lioret said he downplayed, rather than heightened, the migrants’ actual situation, and indeed there is nothing gratuitous in the film. But many have been struck by the setting in Calais, where refugees live in an area around the Channel Tunnel known as ‘the jungle’. Calais became a site for thousands of international migrants in the late 1990s when the Red Cross opened a refugee camp in the nearby commune Sangatte.

The authorities closed the camp in 2002 following requests from the British government, but refugees still journey to Calais because they see it as the best point from which to try to enter Britain, via the Channel Tunnel.

Since the film began showing, the French Immigration Ministry has provided material to construct several ‘light buildings’ to give better shelter to migrants, a change from the usual plastic sheeting and cardboard structures. The migrants, many of whom are Muslims, have also used the material to build an area where they can pray.

The marginally improved conditions have started a new debate in Britain that the shelters may attract even more refugees trying to make it across the Channel.

Lioret says he had long wanted to make a film about people who leave their country for a better life in Britain and end up in Calais “brutalised and humiliated.” The film shows characters barred from entering local supermarkets, or not being able to shower for days.

As in real life, the movie’s migrants also have to pay traffickers who try to smuggle them on trucks bound for Britain, with many of them caught by the police and returned to the camp in Calais.

The idea for ‘Welcome’ crystallised when humanitarian groups told Lioret about migrants who had tried to swim across the Channel. The director said the stories haunted him and one of his co-screenwriters, Emmanuel Courcol.

After searching in several countries for a young actor who could speak Kurdish and English, the director and his casting team finally found a non- professional actor in France named Firat Ayverdi to play the part of Bilal. The first-timer gives a controlled and convincing performance alongside veteran French actor Vincent Lindon. The movie has dialogue in English, French and Kurdish.

 
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