A 17-year-old Kurdish refugee has spent the last three months of his life travelling across Europe in an attempt to reunite with his girlfriend in England. The end is in sight when Bilal finally reaches the far north coast of France, where he can literally see the white cliffs of Dover across the English Channel. Bilal devises a plan to swim across the freezing waters of the Channel, and in training at the local swimming pool, he crosses paths with Simon (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged swimming instructor with a dejected spirit, with whom he forges a common bond.

 

3.5
Accomplished relationship drama plays on the audience’s sense of social justice.

Director Philippe Lioret often deals with the matter of displacement; his work frequently skewers the fussy bureaucracy and zero-tolerance policies of capital-A authorities, with a compassionate focus on those wedged in the margins.

Welcome makes an obvious companion piece to Lioret’s Lost in Transit (Tombés du ciel, 1994), a dramatisation of Iranian refugee Merhan Karimi Nasseri’s 12 years spent living in the bureaucratic void of CDG’s Terminal One (a decade on, Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal riffed on the same story). This time around, Lioret focuses on the goings on in Calais, the gateway to the UK, where a Kurdish teen makes several attempts to cross the Channel for a reunion with his True Love.

17 year-old Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) has fled Iraq on foot and after a three-month cross-Continental trek, he is one stop shy of his final destination. In his naiveté, he figures that with so much border-crossing under his belt, the comparatively short hop over to England will be easy. He comes close to seeing the light at the end of the Chunnel – as a stowaway on a Franco-Anglo freight truck – but a fundamental lapse in judgement twigs the Brits, and Bilal and his fellow travellers are plonked back in Calais. Back in France’s frontier town he fixes his eyes firmly across the Channel, on Dover’s famed while cliffs, and with all other options exhausted, he hatches a plot to swim the final leg. Once he learns how to stay afloat.

Through regular visits to the local swim centre, Bilal strikes up a rapport with Simon the swim coach (Vincent Lindon) – a sad, craggy shadow of his former self, moping his way through an impending divorce that seems to have been triggered by his general air of complacency.

At first Simon doesn’t cotton onto the broader ambitions of the middle-eastern boy flailing about in lane two. When he eventually does, he spots an opportunity to impress his soon-to-be ex-wife (Audrey Dana), an impassioned teacher and social justice campaigner who dishes up food on her nights off, to the huddled masses on the docks. He overcomes initial hesitation to invite Bilal into his home, and train him for the treacherous mid-winter swim.

France’s hardline stance on 'illegals’ is well-known and has proved a ripe source for filmmakers (for instance, Michael Winterbottom’s extraordinary In This World) and Lioret again turns the perception of menace on its head; in scenes reminiscent of World War Two dramas, suspicion is everywhere and tip offs from un-neighbourly neighbours lead to dawn raids of those suspected of harbouring.

Newcomer Ayverdi holds his own against seasoned veteran Lindon, and the strength of their performances help the film rise above the familiar 'teacher taught by his pupil’ terrain, and several other plot contrivances.

Lioret has a knack for compassionate character studies that keep the politics on the periphery. It’s a shame then, that in a time of renewed Moral Panic about asylum seekers, Australian audiences who would benefit the most from Welcome’s softly, softly humanitarian message aren’t likely to be its primary audience.

 

Watch 'Welcome' at SBS on Demand

M
France, 2009

 

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Details

M
1 hour 46 min
In Cinemas 01 April 2010,

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