Close encounters that make all the difference

Simon Smart found more than a political statement in Philippe Lioret's Welcome

A few years ago I interviewed a young Sudanese woman who had spent twelve of her twenty-one years in a Kenyan refugee camp, having fled at age seven from the militia who had attacked her village killing one brother and two half-brothers. She had finally reached Australia where, without any family, she was making a go of a new life. The elegance and dignity with which she bore a weight of sorrow and loss was striking and confronting. I can no longer hear of stories from that part of the world without thinking of her.

Director Philippe Lioret explores this personal connection with people from places and lives very foreign to our own in his film Welcome, which has been a major hit in France in recent months.

The story takes place in and around the French port city of Calais, where former swimming champion Simon Calmat (Vincent Lindon) is failing to come to grips with his separation and pending divorce from Marion (Audrey Dana) with whom he is still in contact. She clearly still loves him, but has grown tired of his apparent inertia. She is younger and more dynamic. A teacher of English, she is motivated and socially conscious, working at a mobile soup kitchen set up to assist the refugees of the area. Calmat goes through the motions as a swimming teacher, but appears to have lost his mojo some time ago. Overweight and unmotivated, his sagging and faded tracksuit is an emblem of his inner gloomy existence.

But when confronted by Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) , a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee, who comes to Calmat for swimming lessons, Calmat finds himself inexorably drawn into the young man’s story. Bilal is in love with Mina, who has immigrated to Britain with her family. His single desire is to reach England to be with her, and he will go to any length to make it happen. Calmat soon realises Bilal’s endless laps of the local pool are preparation for an audacious and seemingly impossible attempt to cross the channel.

The younger man’s passion is a counterpoint to Calmat’s own faded dreams, but it reignites something within him, and his selfless efforts to help Bilal, reveal embers of life that might yet fan into something more substantial. He tells Marion, ‘He walked 4000km to find her. He’ll swim the channel. I couldn’t even cross the road to get you back.’

There is a powerful sadness in Calmat and he finds connection with Bilal in trying to help him avoid a similar fate.

It’s hardly a new story-telling device to have two unlikely protagonists thrown together, only to learn much from each other and mutually benefit from the exchange. But the relationship between Calmat and Bilal, who becomes something of an adopted son to the older man, is handled with a subtlety and authenticity, successfully resisting sentimentality or ‘cheap over-dramatisation’ as Lioret puts it. The result is a story of great poignancy with resonance for contexts across the Western world today, as those fleeing war-ravaged home countries seek shelter and protection, often in places where they are not welcome.

The inspiration for the story came from Lioret’s and Emmanuel Courcol’s visit to the area around Calais during a freezing winter. Lioret and Courcol were clearly impacted by the experience and immediately set about creating a story to give dramatic life to it.

Lioret and Courcol had been to Calais to observe the plight of refugees forming a pitiful community of the desperate and the damned on the final stretch of a coastal fringe—an industrial wasteland of trucks, cranes and warehouses. Unwelcome by most of the locals and hunted by French authorities, these young men live literally within sight of England and whatever they think it will offer them. Yet the dream remains agonisingly out of reach. Having travelled vast distances often on foot, they stare at the final 34 km of English Channel, and devise ways of making it across. 

All of this experience—the smuggler’s extortion rackets, the misery of detention centres, the attempts to squeeze onto trucks bound for ferries risking life trying to avoid C02 detectors, heart monitors, scanners and other high tech devices designed to root out the offenders—is captured in compelling and detailed recreation.

French nationals risk prison if they assist any of these ‘clandestines’ – a strange moral contrast to ‘Good Samaritan’ laws that exist in many parts of the world. In this case, coming to the aid of someone in real need can come at a serious price. Even the original roadside sympathiser of the Gospels didn’t risk being cuffed, hurled into a van and brought before a judge for his trouble! The outsiders create an uncomfortable stain on the city. They are shunned from supermarkets and stores, and are regarded by most as pests to be removed from sight.

For some of us raised in the West the refugee experience seems impossibly remote—confined to nightly news bulletins and newspaper images, the lives of those involved remains far outside our own reality. But as jaded swim coach Simon Calmat discovers, close contact with real people and their struggles to attain a normal life, can challenge perceptions, touch even hard hearts, and make genuine empathy a possibility.

Australian former politician, Bruce Baird, well-known for his work on behalf of asylum seekers, acknowledges that the issue held no real interest for him until he visited the detention centres around Australia. Once he met the people and heard their stories he felt compelled to act on their behalf.

Welcome is timely film for Australian audiences, as daily we hear reports of boat people finding their way to the outer reaches of our shores. Desperate souls roll the dice on a perilous trip to find shelter and the hope of a new life. When the government promises tougher action to repel the apparent hordes, polls and surveys reveal a fear of being swamped and popular approval of tighter restrictions.

It’s a complex issue, devoid of easy solutions. And Lioret’s film is more than a political statement. It’s a beautifully rendered story of courage, love and self-sacrifice. Its enduring message is of the power and importance of a personal narrative to inform discussion of policies and attitudes to ‘the other’. At the very least, this can prevent prejudice and fear becoming the driving force behind the political decisions that are so crucial in deciding the fate of desperate women, children and men.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity