Philippe Lioret is a man with a powerful message. It highlights France’s shameful treatment of illegal aliens and the arcane law (Article L622-1) that renders illegal any assistance given by citizens to refugees, to the tune of 5 years in gaol. To be sure this is serious subject matter for any filmmaker, but how does Lioret choose to impart his message? Through a love story. Well, three, actually.
“There are three couples” says Lioret, speaking of the ironically titled Welcome and his tale of a young Kurdish refugee, Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), who is stranded in Calais and anxious to reach England to be reunited with his girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi). Deciding to swim the Channel, he enlists the help of swim instructor Simon (Vincent Lindon), whose outspoken ex-wife Marion (Audrey Dana) perilously volunteers with the refugees. Simon’s deepening friendship with the tenacious, love sick Bilal puts his relationship with Marion into sharp relief, “I couldn’t even cross the road to get you back,” he admits.
So the third couple is of course Bilal and Simon.
“They could be father and son.” Lioret says, “In the story Simon teaches Bilal to swim and also wants to teach him the values of life. But very, very quickly he realises that Bilal’s values are better than his.”
It’s through this unlikely friendship that Lioret chooses investigate the plight of refugees and help pare back the veil of ignorance behind which the French public operates.
“At the beginning I knew nothing of this [refugee situation]. When I discovered it, I learned about it, and through [the making of the film] I became a better citizen.”
“I met [with the refugees] over six weeks and at the end of the six weeks I lived with them. I spent the night in the jungle with them, in the wood beside the Calais harbour and what I discovered was incredible. They were teachers or students, some of them were doctors, [and all] were only escaping their countries because of war.”
The grim realities portrayed in Welcome have already sparked much debate, and ruffled more than a few feathers in the French government. Lioret was invited to screen the film in French parliament, and although the Conservative majority made it clear Article L622-1 would not be repealed, he sees it as, “a first step.” Lioret is more encouraging of the European Parliament, who awarded Welcome the Lux Prize (to “illuminate public debate on European integration”), in what he sees as a symbolic gesture that, “this law is not fair.”
And yet despite this award (but perhaps in response to the current French government) Lioret is reluctant to suggest his film will lead to any profound change.
“Maybe, if people like the film they can change their mind a little. But [with regards to] the political problem, I say no, it’s too difficult. But my job is not to [foster] change, but to show a good film to good people.”
Which is not to say Lioret doesn’t court a little controversy! On the contrary, in creating his ‘good film’ the filmmaker is entirely unafraid of making startling allusions to Vichy France. Elements of collaboration, ghettoising, police brutality and lack of legal recourse are all simply and compellingly incorporated in Welcome. And Lioret is resoundingly unapologetic about the consternation this has caused.
“While I was shooting the film, I thought about many old WWII films and a friend of mine said to me, “but it could be in ’43 with the Gestapo and the people who hide Jews in their cellars.”” he says.
“It’s exactly the same, with the police coming at seven o’clock in the morning, saying, 'Do you hide the refugees? Do you hide the Jews?'” “Ok there’s no concentration camps now, but when you take 10 young Afghan boys and you kick them out of the country, those are lives [lost] too. It’s nearly the same problem. And [the act of citizens turning] someone into the authorities is common.”
In further pressing this provocative point, Lioret ruefully elaborates on France’s loathed Immigration Minister Eric Besson.
“Two years ago he was in the opposition, but when he saw [Nicolas] Sarkozy was going to win, he changed his mind and [joined the Conservative party]. But when [Besson] was in the opposition, he wrote a report on Sarkozy and he said that [was acting like] the Vichy police in ’43, and now he’s working for him! This guy is Iago!”
Though Lioret shows no shortage of vehemence when speaking of France’s treatment of refugees, he’s also very aware, “it’s an international problem.” “It’s true in Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany too,” he says.
Of course the film’s treatment of illegal aliens will have a particular (uncomfortable) resonance for Australian audiences, which dovetails perfectly with Lioret’s creative approach.
“When I write a script it’s not for the city or for the country, it’s for people everywhere,” he says. “You know sometimes you speak about strangers, but you don’t know them until you meet them and you [spend time] with them. And at this moment there is no difference [between you], so you change your mind. But the first step is to go to them, to listen to them, to speak with them and to learn why they are here and where they come from. But it [requires action]; it’s more difficult than staying in your flat and [watching] TV.”
In this way Welcome comes across like a cinematic call to arms. And Lioret is keenly aware of his responsibility to combat this ignorance by capturing the reality of contemporary France. It informed the film’s visual, pseudo-documentary style, and made it vital to film on location.
“It’s the truth, and it must look like the truth,” he says. “We were shooting 100m from the real refugees. The harbour of Calais is the biggest trans-Channel port, and it’s the place where it [really] happens, so we had to shoot there.”
Naturally Lioret could not cast real refugees for fear of Article L622-1. “I could not take risks that would send my producer to gaol for 5 years," he says, "He’s a friend of mine!”
But instead Lioret and co-writer Emmanuel Courcol’s politicised and heartrending story stands as an important acknowledgment of these stranded souls. Indeed, in keeping with Lioret’s WWII allusions, the film seems to hark back to the commemoration of the Unknown Soldier.
“Welcome is based on the true story," the director concludes. "And the film is also a tribute to him – this guy I don’t know.”
Published by Street Press Australia