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‘Welcome’ to another predictable film about migration

WelcomeIllegal immigrant = victim, white citizen = hero. This is the premise of many narratives about migration, the latest being Philippe Lioret’s film Welcome. Elena Jeffreys wants to know why human rights for people of colour seem to come with the price tag of being cast as a helpless victim.

Spoiler alert: plot details are revealed in this article.

White, first-world, middle-class people live boring lives and coloured third-world middle-class people die exciting deaths. Isn’t that what happens in every feel good migration story?

Welcome is no different. It’s being heralded as the new greatest thing in film – promoting illegal migrants’ rights and treating the issues with sensitivity.

This is half rubbish.  It may be promoting illegal migrants rights but it is not at all sensitive – the storyline is more like a relentless jackhammer, and while everyone else in the cinema was crying into their popcorn I was trying to stifle the groans at how predictable the storyline is.

 Of course there was going to be no happy ending. Anyone in a love/hate relationship with contemporary movies knows that happy endings haven’t sold tickets to art house cinema since 9/11.

But this story could have been told with a happy ending, so why wasn’t it? Is it because – as director Philippe Lioret claimed when asked – “The mother of Bambi is dead”? No. The story resolves unhappily because that is the only way that western audiences are able to understand, accept and popularise a film about illegal migration:  migrant = victim/dead, citizen = hero/saviour.

This is the key reason Welcome has gained such an audience – it makes a hero of the white people by having them try to rescue the migrant/victim in the story. 

Seventeen-year-old Bilal is determined to reunite with his girlfriend, Mina in England. When he reaches the French port of Calais he resolves that his only option to get to England is to learn to swim and make the dangerous Channel crossing himself.

Enter white, middle-class, middle-aged swimming instructor, Simon who, bored with his own life, takes Bilal under his wing and has his own life enriched by the experience.

All heroes need a victim to save but instead of damsels in distress tied to railway lines, in Welcome it is a Kurdish refugee living illegally in France.

The illegal migrant character is killed off for the very egalitarian purpose of creating a film worthy of educating a white audience about the horrors of illegal migration and about a particular anti-refugee law in France, now known as the ‘Welcome’ law because of the huge public education campaign that has been achieved by the film.

Call me a cynic but I think the public education achieved is made meaningless because of the racist tools used to communicate the message.

Why do human rights for people of colour seem to come with the price tag of being cast as a helpless victim? Why can’t human rights just be granted to people because they are … human? Why can’t the illegal migrant in the story live? Is that too much to ask?

Could it be that most white people are simply unwilling to step outside their comfort zones and be in the minority for a change? In Western Europe where the film is set, parliaments may still be lily white but the streets and the workforce definitely are not.

There are so many white people feeling guilty about their citizenship that when faced with films about migrant victims without nationalistic security they have no choice but to give the film awards, good reviews and show it in prestigious venues (French Parliament being one of them).

Cue  ‘At the Movies’ giving Welcome 4 stars and a glowing review that asserted: “The film is an eye-opener in its depiction of the way the French handle, or don't handle, a refugee problem that seems much greater than Australia's.” (David Stratton). Wow, Welcome even made an Australian leftie feel better about [detention centre] Christmas Island.

The film facilitates white characters and a white audience to feel a degree of middle-class angst only ever reached when a white person gets the opportunity to think they are extending themselves to ‘help’ an ‘other’.

The conclusion to this narrative is that white middle-class society is helpless to change the world but you can change yourself through personal connections with ‘others.’

Many readers are perhaps now thinking that I missed the point of the film – it is all about ‘connectedness’ between people of different backgrounds (cue  ‘At the Movies’ again). My argument is that a film doesn’t have to violently end the life of the main non-white character in order to communicate friendships that overcome difference.

Welcome fits into the mould of an ‘acceptable’ migration story - one that does not upset current social protocols of class and race. And the only way to conclude such a story is by killing the victim, in a pointless, tear-jerking, ‘the world sucks’ kind of way.

In the case of Welcome the death itself is not dramatised (there are no dead bodies) but from about five minutes into the piece you can guess how they are going to die, and then the theme and story are laboured until the death finally occurs. It’s like a slow walk on the plank with the inevitable drop at the end staring at you from the beginning of the film.

Of course these fictional solutions to the ‘problem’ of migrant outsiders in our western white middle-class society are far from practical – if all racial ‘others’ died early deaths we would not have refugees or migrants to detain or make films about.

In fact if popular film and book narratives such as this one were anywhere near close to the truth, the only refugee issue for governments would be how to pay for all the funerals and where to put the bodies.

I exaggerate slightly – not all ethnic ‘others’ are killed in this film: Mina is forcibly married off to another ethnic ‘other’ who is even older and uglier than the father who is arranging the marriage.

Somehow killing her would have been more humane – but it fits in better with the film’s racist stereotyping that she is destined to live a hideous life at the hands of her own non-western middle-eastern culture.

So the moral to this story is? Don’t trust film critics because they’ll send you to any schlock that makes them feel better about their white privilege.

Oh, and a message to director Philippe Lioret: Bambi’s mother died in the first half of the Disney film, and Bambi lived on to overcome difficulties.

The only analogy to your film would be if Bambi was killed at the end and sent to the glue factory, which is what filmmakers and authors are doing to migrants’ stories in 2010.  And it’s really not ‘welcome’.

RELATED ARTICLE: Q&A with Welcome director Phillipe Lioret


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