Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Illégal. (2010) Olivier Masset-Depasse

The illegal immigrant is a controversial subject no matter the country in question. Illégal puts us in the shoes of a woman hiding and then captured, and then on the run. The story, experienced through her eyes, will be touching even to those who typically have no sympathy for her status.

Russian immigrant Tania came to Belgium with her son, Ivan, when he was a child, through a contact in the Russian mafia. On Ivan's fourteenth birthday mom plans a surprise party for him but it's disrupted on their way home by a routine police check on the street. In the face of her illegal status, Tania panics and is arrested; Ivan, in tears, runs away. The police follow protocol and place her in a detention center for women. She'll be held there until they figure out her true citizenship -- who she is and where she belongs and how to fly her back "home."

She refuses to give any personal information out of fear that Ivan may be captured, too. After endless interrogation she coughs up a name and country, neither of which belongs to her. A friend's name is chosen instead, and a country from which she can ask for asylum. Not knowing her friend's full immigration history backfires, and Tania is left facing a much quicker deportation to a country she knows nothing about.

As she waits for deportation at the center, a pay phone is her only connection to the outside world. Through phone conversations with Ivan, she fears he'll be forced into working for the Russians, who are bearing down hard on the outside. It's an impossible situation. Not wanting the boy abandoned, and not wanting him working for the Russians, she believes escape from the center is the only right solution.

She spends much of her time in isolation mapping out ways to pull it off. She meets those who have tried to escape and failed, and seeing the bumps and bruises upon their return keeps her attention on the timing, and whether escape is even an option.

One thing that separates Illégal from other immigrant films like Dirty Pretty Things or Lorna's Silence is that the bulk of the film is shot from inside detention. It riffs on that real-life, hand-held Dardennes style, which is perfect for the tight, claustrophobic setting of the center. We sense the hopelessness detainees face in their shared bedrooms and locked up windows, in pale walls that surround them like they'll soon cave in. These enclosed, stifling spaces of hardship make it all the more satisfying when Tania perseveres.

With a stern, serious performance by Anne Coesens, Tania's character is broken and probably confused (but barely showing it). She's running out of options and pitted against time -- the time of her deportation, which is separation from her son.

When one of the guards who has been friendly to her plight finally asks Tania if what she's going through is worth it -- whether going home would really be that bad after all -- Tania's firm reply is deadly resolute: "What do you think? That we're masochists? What do you want to know? Want to know if I've suffered enough to stay in your country?"

I've run into plenty of Americans who want to run the illegals out with a shotgun aimed at their back. I've run into a few who might shoot before the runner hits the border. I'd like to see their reaction to Illégal, where you're given a face for the faceless, a name for the nameless. We're willing to think globally when it benefits us or our economy -- are there other times it might be right to do the same?

Winner of the SACD Prize at the 2010 Cannes Director's Fortnight, Illégal sheds light on something we seldom see, that of the captured squatter with no home willing to go to any length to create one.

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