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Q&A with Philippe Lioret

 Q&A with Welcome director Phillipe Lioret

Phillipe Lioret attended a screening of his film about illegal immigrants, Welcome, at the Palace Cinema in Leichhardt, Sydney recently. After the film he took questions from members of the audience.

How did the subject first occur to you?

I have just spent two days [in Sydney] with journalists asking the same question! I remembered that many questions of the journalists asked, “What scene do you prefer in the film?” There are  two moments that are my favourite and both are exchanges of looks. 

One in the kitchen during the pizza eating “football in Manchester” comment and Simons look at Bilal … it’s the beginning of their relationship. Also at the end of the film when Ronaldo [player from Manchester United] looks at the camera and looks so much like Bilal. 

When I discovered this picture [of Ronaldo] I knew it was the last frame of the film, and the look between Bilal and Simon is the exchange that marks part of the beginning. 

It started three years ago when a friend of mine explained to me exactly what happens in the north of France. I discovered what happens there, then I went there and stayed for four weeks. 

After four weeks, it was terrible what [I witnessed] happening in this place. My first decision is that you cannot do a film on this subject: it is misery, and film is a commercial act and you pay to see the film. I did not want to make a commercial film with such misery. 

One of the volunteers [helping the refugees] said “Stop it, do the film, because each week there is a video camera from a TV program to film what happens, and each week there are a few reports on the news about the problem, but no one looks anymore, no one listens anymore, no one cares. Maybe a feature film for cinema helps us.” 

I had the theme of the film but I had no idea of the drama or characters or the story. But I was sure in this context I can find a way for a very good film. It was very hard and very deep. 

I met two young boys [during my four weeks there], one was Afghan and one was Kurdish. The Afghan wanted to cross the channel to meet his fiancé. I did not meet the Kurdish boy, but the volunteers told me he had tried to cross the channel by swimming. Many have. One of them never arrived in London and never went back to France and had never called the volunteers. 

I wanted to combine these two characters. My co-writer said “He wants to cross the channel, he must learn to swim,” and bang I had it. The swimming teacher never saw his [estranged] wife, and I thought he could be the other main character. 

You must have thought a lot of immigration issues and what is a good way of respecting their human rights and the global situation. What is your message to the world? 

I usually use the post office to send a message. (laughs). Really I’m not a moralist. I started to make the film like a filmmaker, with an eye for good drama. Sure it was touching me but in the beginning I did not know what I was getting involved in. 

It came slowly. During the writing not so much, because I was in full drama with the characters. This is two love stories complete with complications, and they are crashing on the wall of the strange order of the world. 

When the film was finished… because during the shooting we had the crew here and 100 metres to the right we had the real refugees and real social workers, but we could not help them. 

For example there is not one extra that is a real migrant in this film because of this law. If we pay them to be extras or actors, my producer could spend five years in jail. So it was very difficult and during the shoot we had no connection with them. 

I had many connections with them before the writing. But when the film is released everyone is asking me “What can we do?” and I had nothing to say, and after 10 times I felt stupid. So I said the only solution is to stop the war in Afghanistan or Kurdistan so they can go back to their own country, and also they must change the law [that prevents French citizens from assisting and harbouring refugees]. 

So the French politicians wanted to show the film in the French parliament. They showed it, they asked if they can change the law – [the law is now known as] the “Welcome” law. 

The parliament is conservative, it is a work in progress. The EU parliament gave [the film] an award, and they told them that this law is not fair, they screened it there also. 

The film was screened in Kurdistan, and 5000 people watched it. After the film they said “How can I cross the channel?” (laughter) but I said “Do not go.” But there is a sunny side of the street and the rainy side of the street and they will want to go!

Did you have a focus group of Kurdish background migrants to check over the cultural sensitivity of the script? 

There is nothing like this in France, they are all just stuck as aliens on the coast, trying to leave. I spent four weeks with them – that was my focus group. 

The French public love this film. What are your thoughts? 

It was a surprise for me that this film is so popular. Twenty minutes [of the film is in] Kurdish. And the ending is not so happy! Maybe [I should change the ending and make it so that] he can cross [the channel]. I [could] change the [channel] cross[ing], [Bilal could] marry [his fiancé] Mina, Simon comes for the wedding, there is a honeymoon, they exchange rings. But I say no … the mother of Bambi is dead! 

[The death at the ending] is also a tribute to the guy who tried to cross but nobody knows if he succeeded or not. 

But the main reaction is in France. For other films, most of the time, people are polite, and they say “Bravo.” But for this film they say “Thank you” because the film caters to their conscience. 

How much was it your intention to enhance the parallel between the love story between the young person (ready to sacrifice everything) and the love between two adults (the activist and coach)? How much did you choose to focus on the political versus the universal. How much was this important to you?

I promise – maybe I am silly, but I have no idea of what you are saying. I am the same like [the character] Simon. I am like Simon. 

In the beginning when I started the film I didn’t care [about illegal migrants]. I discovered [my conscience] too, with the film. The film for me is only a drama. I only filmed it like a [news] report, but I didn’t want to make a [news] report on this. 

Many journalists when they do report [on illegal migrants] they have no idea, they only do the report. During the filming of Welcome on the left side of the set I have the real migrants. I looked at what they do and what they say, and then I wrote the script and then I filmed the same thing. Except I needed lights. You can’t see what happens in the dark on the left and on the right we have lights and cameras. 

It’s not philosophical for me to do this. It becomes like with you, with the reflection of the spectators, you make half the film. 

How much did you change personally doing this movie? 

Yes, sure it changed me, the film brought me in front of certain realities, and also politically, the opposition in this country asked me what to do. For me there is no issue except stop the war. And the only issue I found was to say “We must change this law.” If you help an [illegal migrant] alien and if you take them in your car and the police stop you, you can spend five years in jail. 

The minister says nobody uses this law. Silly boy - that means if nobody uses the law then you can change the law. This is my only political and philosophical implication in the film. 

I am sure that if the film is only reduced to this problem, you would not be here [as an audience]. There is no audience for a documentary on migrants and the specific problems of Kurdish people who want to go to England. 

I am sure the film about the relationship between the 50-year-old old person, [the character Simon and the 17-year-old [character Bilal]. One is teaching swimming and one is teaching about the life the other one does not know. 

I am not sure if you are aware but Australia is currently undergoing a similar situation with Sri Lankans. When you show this film in France do you find the conservatives connect a bit more [to the issue of illegal migration] or do they treat it as a fictional film? 

The conservative people are the empty chairs when the film is finished. On the internet you can read incredible things. It is very surprising – it’s a very racist period right now, and I had [to consider] these type of questions in the film. 

Fifteen years ago my first film was Lost in Transit, about a guy lost in an airport. It’s a true story – he was there for six years. But at the end of the film people asked me the same question: “Will the film change conservative thinking?” But the film will not change conservative minds. Maybe a little but I am not a moralist – it is not my job to know this! 

If you wanted to change something in the film, what would you change and why? 

You can ask yourself this question until the end of shooting [a film], but … when I arrived at the editing I switched off my poor brain and I said, “I will not change anything” because I can’t! 

Maybe I would change one thing: My day at the beach when the actor who was to be the owner of the dog was so sick I had to take his place! 

Q&A report compiled by The Scavenger’s associate editor Elena Jeffreys who attended the screening. 

Register for self-service experienceRELATED ARTICLE: ‘Welcome to yet another predictable film about migration

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