No, this is not a report on a film festival dedicated to "undocumented aliens" or "clandestins" as they're known in France. In fact, it's not even the first time that a number of films treat the theme of immigration - Siegfried Mortkowitz of Deutsche Presse/Agentur thought the 2006 Cannes Festival did that.
But the last few months have seen at least three films treating "illegal immigrants" as individual human beings, surely not a bad thing when the tendency is to treat them as an abstraction - mere numbers, or faceless, nameless shapes furtively crossing the US-Mexican border at night, or washing up on Europe's shores.
"Welcome" (poster, Mars Distribution), Phillippe Lioret's 2009 film, is an effective treatment of citizen solidarity with illegal immigrants. The setting is Calais, the French port from which car ferries shuttle across the English Channel. It's also a kind of no man's land for streams of young men (mostly) from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, desperately hoping to sneak their way across to Britain.
France dismantled its processing center at Sangatte years ago, but demolition of the building did nothing to stop the flow of immigrants. Instead of congregating in one center, they are now dispersed among the region's woods and sand dunes, camping rough and dependent on the charity of the region's residents. While "Welcome" was still playing in French theaters this spring, protesters organized demonstrations against the "délit de solidarité" (the law whereby helping a clandestine immigrant can land you in jail, even if you are just distributing food) by parading with signs daring the authorities to "arrêtez-moi."
Welcome manages to depict this mess - for that's what French immigration policy is - credibly, and shows the authorities going about their grim business in a brusque but businesslike way. The casting is first-rate, and there is no yielding to temptations for either stereotyping or happy endings.
In Tom McCarthy's The Visitor (released in Europe late 2008/early 2009), more kudos for casting, and for showing the diversity of the US immigrant scene beyond the Sonoran Desert. Here it's New York, and the intertwined lives of an American teacher who stumbles into solidarity with a hapless guy who overstays his visa, a Syrian who falls afoul of the Patriot Act's roundup of people with a Middle Eastern look or name. I found the depiction of the windowless detention center very effective, and Richard Jenkins' college professor is justifiably enraged by his impotence at the hands of the "please stay away from the window, sir" security guards, who are now ubiquitous in America. Imagine how the immigrants feel (though the 2007 film more accurately portrays the aura of the Bush years, the laws have remained unchanged).
McCarthy, who toured the Middle East thanks to a State Department grant, came back wanting to delve more into the culture of an area of the world that so few Americans know first-hand. The Visitor is by no means that cultural primer, but it does show in microcosm some of the difficulties of adaptation into post-9/11 America for people who just want to do what immigrants have always done in the US - settle down, earn a living, raise a family. Hopefully America's immigration chief - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who appears to have a nuanced understanding of her remit - will see The Visitor.
Eden à l'ouest
Costa-Gavras (he does have a first name, Constantin) has produced a sort of immigrant fable, "Eden à l'ouest." It is an interesting addition to his oeuvre, which mostly consists of hard hitting political films like "Z" and "Missing," dealing with dictatorships, impunity, and repression. Costa-Gavras, who himself made his way West to France in the 1950s, sees his film as an Odyssey - others have seen his principal character Elias as an updated autobiographical reference to Costa-Gavras' own journey.
There is a certain Euro-speak use of English in Eden à l'ouest, but it can be forgiven when put in its context of a Mediterranean resort dealing with an influx of boat people. Other than "Eden" (Paris), you're never sure where the rest of the action is taking place. Again, when migrants ditch their passports in the Med, people's origins - like those of Elias - become blurred.
Everyone wants a piece of Elias, symbolic perhaps of what Western societies get out of illegals. We're happy to have our trash picked up by people whose papers may not be quite in order - Elias winds up working at some point for a recycling firm which profits from the precarious situation of its "temporary" employees.
Some may be put off by a subplot involving a magician, and there have been comparisons to an immigrant version of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. But the stress remains more on the realistic than the magical, and the lot of the modern migrant is more likely to be rags than riches.