I am not much of a cryer in movies. This may sound a little surprising from someone as emotional as myself, but it usually takes a fair bit of sadness in a film for me to lose it. This is what happened during a screening of French director Philippe Lioret's Welcome. This is probably the saddest film I have seen all year!
Set in the northern French town of Calais, Welcome is the story of Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a seventeen year-old Iraqi Kurd immigrant. Bilal has survived a walk (yes walk) from his homeland, now setting his sights on crossing the English Channel to reach his girlfriend, Mina(Derya Ayverdi). Mina and her Iraqi family have migrated to London, with Bilal having promised to join there, and make a life together. After attempts to smuggle the border on a cargo truck, Bilial decides to swim the Channel. In this plight he meets Simon (Vincent Lindon), a heart-broken middle-aged swimming instructor. Simon takes the young Iraqi under his wing, teaching him the skills that made himself a French champion. The kindness Simon shows is at great personal risk, and the Calais authorities are soon on to him. Assisting immigrants is a major offence, with the issue a very real one for French society. However, in true French style Simon's shift from lifeless individual to one of compassion causes a change of heart in his much younger and very attractive ex-wife Marion (Audrey Dana). Love scenes and passionate embraces, the hallmarks of any French movie, ensue.
It is not all tragedy. The bond between Bilal and Simon is moving. While other citizens in Calais look to the immigrants as a form of vermin, Simon takes the time to engage with one of these desperate and impoverished individuals. Plainly, Simon gains as much from the relationship as Bilal, with the coach having his passion for swimming revived through his young protege. The stamina Bilal has shown in making his way to France, all in the name of a girl whom he has spoken to since leaving his homeland, shows more personal strength than that needed to swim the English channel. At only seventeen, he has lived beyond his years, something that is the case for many young immigrants. At the same time, his love for Mina and dream to be a famous footballer connect Bilal to many of the Western citizens whom regard immigrant like himself as a unwanted aliens. Lioret manages the balance of topical and complex themes with personal bonds, making Welcome avoid becoming a lecture on the rights and wrongs of immigration.
What really got me about this film was the confronting realness of the plot. Any Australia knows how topical and distressing issues of immigration are. This is a situation that is seen throughout the world. In France, stories like Bilal's are ever-present. I think it is so important for films about these issues to be made. Films, like Welcome, that do not attempt to gloss over or resolve the situation. Intersections with vignettes of the French immigration authorities, and escaped immigrants like Mina's family in London effectively convey the complexity of the situation. The perspective of each group is explored; the hesitation toward helping immigrants, their desire for a better life and Simon's choice to help one of these individuals to achieve this.
This is great film, but make sure to take lots of tissues!