Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Imed Labidi: Welcome - An Insight into the Landscape of Contemporary French Consciousness

Welcome: An Insight into the Landscape of Contemporary French Consciousness
by Imed Labidi
Senses of Cinema

Philippe Lioret’s 2009 film Welcome is “a compelling social drama” (1) about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive illegally in Calais, a city in northern France that has become a transit point for those hoping to cross into the United Kingdom. In the course of its gripping story line and realistic camera work, Welcome powerfully dispels the fantasy of a hospitable Europe which welcomes the displaced with open arms. Instead, it captures disturbing scenes of xenophobia, police brutality, and racial intolerance. In its critique of French immigration laws that serve as the new apparatus for racial discrimination, Welcome also advances the claim that the humanitarian crisis of what recent European discourse calls the “new migrants” is due, in part, to the ambivalence of the local French population.

Heavily invested in the socio-realist documentary style, Lioret’s cinematic narrative expresses his concern about a Front Nationalist government gone wild and the propagation of French politics that vilifies migrants, hates former colonial subjects, legalizes discrimination, excludes those who are in need, alienates les Beurs, constrains possibilities of assimilation, and dehumanizes refugees and asylum seekers. The film illuminates the stark contradictions between moral codes, laws of the republic, and the unrestrained powers of French authority to marginalize citizens and foreigners. Grappling with the discomforting theme of the public’s disconnect from the political sphere, the anxiety about ethnocentric fanaticism, and the violations of basic human rights, “Lioret’s movie […] is drawn from real events” (2) and critiques how the government packages its law-breaking measures (3) in the name of “law and order, l’insécurité, an issue that has been exploited by the extreme-right Front National (FN)” (4).

With its emphasis on French political discourse and cultural transformation, the film’s subtexts provoke reflection on the structural changes to France’s immigration laws that began in the 1980s. As France’s need for unskilled labour diminished, laws packaged in nationalist rhetoric began restricting entry into the country, as well as employment and residency. France has modified these laws more frequently than any other European country, holding “a record for legislative change in the area of immigration. Major reforms were passed in 1980, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1993, 1997, and most recently in 1998.” (5)

Supporting the nationalist obsession with the De Gaullian promise of “la France aux français”, the preserving of France exclusively for the French and concurrent nurturing of xenophobic sentiments in the shadow of all these immigration initiatives, a new cultural attitude has shifted the debate on immigration, asylum, miscegenation, and the multicoloured ethnic composite of contemporary Europe. “Rather than being easily recognized as part of an overt racialist discourse, they are dislocated and disguised as part of a discourse on culture, social cohesion, integration, shared values, common heritage, and other similar rhetorical figures” (6). However, neither belligerent measures nor political spectacles eliminate the presence of the refugees nor undo the racially motivated police retaliation episodes inflicted on them. Yet these migrants survive despite the odds. In Welcome, the camera captures the refugee camp, the English Channel, and the invisible gaze of French police, permanently exposing a dislocated community constantly haunted by the technology of surveillance and the belief they can never truly hide.

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