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France 2009
Directed by
Phillippe Lioret
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
3.5 stars


Synopsis: A 17-year-old Kurdish refugee arrives at the end of a long journey in Calais, to find friendship and help from a local man in his struggle to find a way to England to reunite with his girlfriend.

Welcome is a moving and confronting film that portrays the human drama and emotional intensity of desperate refugees struggling against a hostile French bureaucracy.

The young Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) arrives in Calais. He is implacably committed to reaching England to see his girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi) who emigrated there with her family some time previously. Still waters run deep in this young man (who, like most of the refugee characters, is portrayed by a non-professional actor).. The film comes alive visually when he seeks lessons at the local pool from the swimming instructor, Simon (Vincent Lindon). Unlike the grey, industrial palette used for coastal Calais, the local pool is a place of refracted light. Yet the beautifully filmed water is a ominous harbinger of Bilal’s future. He is determined to swim the English Channel, despite his instructor’s disbelief and remonstrations.

Simon provides the segue into the over-arching concern of the film – that of the attitude of the overwhelmingly white population of France towards the plight of refugees. As well as Simon and his estranged wife who are going through different stages of a political awakening, this is represented by the policemen who are seeking to fill their quota of refugees detained and returned to their homeland and, in the background, an indifferent and unwelcoming general citizenry..

Gradually, the film begins to feel more like a story about French guilt as it explores Simon’s emerging paternal fondness for Bilal and desire to help him, his frustrations with the bureaucracy and his desire to reconcile with his wife who is volunteer on a soup kitchen for refugees that the authorities want to close down.In this respect he is a kind of emblem for French audiences who rightly have been outraged by their government's treatment of refugees and the people who have given them food and shelter.

Although Lioret’s film is more about the white bourgeoisie’s story than that of the exile, and this is perhaps a little frustrating, it is also true that Welcome is a moving attempt to blend the stories and journeys of the native and the refugee, to show an understanding of both and how they intersect. The journeys of Bilal and Simon and their interaction with the heartbreakingly sad Mina are impressively brought home, with Vincent Lindon in particular giving such a strong performance that the predictable and sentimental aspects of the script are overcome.

Welcome has sparked a valuable political debate in France. Since its release there have been renewed attempts to end France’s draconian immigration laws that impose up to 5 years imprisonment for people like Simon who lend any assistance whatsoever to a refugee (it might be a bed for the night, or recharging a phone). Like Simon, real French citizens in similar circumstances have been marched from their home by police and interrogated for hours. If this film encourages more people to speak up for the rights of the dispossessed it is surely worth every cent of the admission.




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