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A Welcome subject

Last update - Thursday, May 7, 2009, 00:42 By Metro Éireann

Séamas McSwiney on a new wave of films dealing with the impact of immigration in western Europe

Film has the power to deal with social issues in ways that can often make a real difference, however small. And asylum seekers are providing filmmakers with a rich new vein of human drama.
The plight of undocumented immigrants and their struggles in the 21st century might not be a fully-fledged cinematic genre just yet, but the diversity of stories on film concerning asylum seekers and illegal border crossers is proving to be a rich ground for exploration.
In Ireland, Seaview isn’t the first film to confront the issues of immigration in Ireland, but it is one of the most accomplished and the most striking to date.
Made by video artists Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowly, it combines artistic endeavour and social realism to show what it feels like to inhabit the no-man’s land of the asylum seeker. The ensuing controversy is a testament both to their talent and the sensitive nature of the issue in Ireland today.
Seaview, which premiered at last year’s Berlin Film Festival to critical approval, takes place at the former holiday camp in Mosney, Co Meath, now used as a holding centre for asylum seekers whose cases are pending. The relative comfort of the facilities, designed for holiday fun with bright colours and convivial surroundings, only underscores the discomfort, anguish and uncertainty that cloud the horizons of its new occupants.
Another recent film, ironically titled Welcome, was a surprise hit at the French box-office this year – and is also the subject of much political controversy in France. It tells the dramatic story of Bilal, a Kurdish Iraqi ‘clandestine’ who shows up at the port of Calais determined to make it to England and rejoin his true love, Mina.
Finding it impossible to get across the Channel by the usual smuggling methods, Bilal decides to swim across. He strikes up a relationship with a French swimming instructor, Simon, who is both shocked and impressed by the boy’s determination to go to such extremes to reach his girlfriend.
Apart from the high drama of Bilal’s dilemma, it was also director Philippe Lioret’s intention give a true account of the lives of illegal immigrants in France. In particular, Welcome highlights a controversial French law that forbids its citizens to aid illegal immigrants in any way, even for basic humanitarian needs such as shelter or simply charging their mobile phone.
This aspect of the film’s story provoked comparisons with collaborationist France in the Second World War regarding the hiding of Jews. On 8 April, in true French protest tradition, it even led to some 5,000 people “turning themselves in” for having “committed this crime”.
An audience of over 1 million have already seen Welcome in cinemas in France, and millions more will see it on television next year. The more people that it and other similar cinematic stories reach, the more attitudes to immigration will surely change.

Séamas McSwiney is an Irish film journalist based in France

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