Anyone who watched the news last month would have been shocked to see how refugees in Calais were treated by the French government when it decided to close down their camps. One image in particular encapsulated the day – a teenager totally traumatised by the violence of the riot police sent in to destroy the refugees’ makeshift camp.
This month’s release of Welcome is timely. It provides an insight into the treatment of refugees at the hands of the French government – last month’s raid was the continuation of a process, not a one-off event.
Welcome tells the story of Bilal, a young Iraqi Kurd who travelled thousands of miles to end up in Calais with just the Channel keeping him apart from his Iraqi girlfriend who recently moved to London. In his bid to reach England, Bilal meets up with other refugees who, after the closure of the Sangatte camp, wander the streets of Calais and sleep rough.
With €500 Bilal learns he can try to reach Britain hidden in a truck. One night he and some fellow Iraqis pay their way. The truck reaches the French customs and the small group have to cover their heads with a plastic bag to elude the CO2 detector used by the police to catch immigrants. But Bilal can’t hold it – they are caught and sent back to Calais.
Walking on the beach he realises that he could actually swim his way to his loved one, so he decides to take swimming lessons. Simon, his swimming instructor, is a grouchy, self-centred man who eventually decides to help Bilal. But at first he only helps in order to regain the love of his estranged wife, a teacher and a volunteer at the Salam charity that provides food to the refugees.
This is when Welcome takes on its full roundedness. The more Simon helps Bilal the more problems he has with the police. Contrary to what Eric Besson – the French immigration minister responsible for last month’s clearout of the Calais camps – tried to deny when the film came out in France, people do get hassled or arrested by the police when they’re helping people with an illegal status.
Philippe Lioret has made an extremely powerful film, not just because his treatment of immigration is exemplary but also because he adds other themes, such as love and indifference. Let’s hope the film won’t be stuck in the art house circuit and will be seen by as many as possible.
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