Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 25, 2011

Illegal

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

In many ways, the title of the film “Illegal” that opens today at the Cinema Village in New York should be “Nobody is illegal” since this is about as hard-hitting and politically engaged as any movie ever made on the plight of undocumented workers. While Americans might assume that the protagonists are Latinos, who bear the brunt of nativist repression, the film takes place in Belgium and tells the story of Tania, a teacher from Byelorussia who now works cleaning offices at night.

In the opening moments, we see Tania sitting on a sofa drinking vodka straight from a bottle. It turns out that she is not dissolute, only seeking to dull the pain that awaits her. Once she is sufficiently dosed, she takes a steam iron and proceeds to apply the iron against her fingertips in an attempt to conceal her identity. From this moment onwards, we understand that being deported is a fate worse than hell. The fact that “Illegal” does not spell out what makes her so afraid does not diminish it. All we need to know is that for some people becoming an undocumented worker in another country is a lesser evil, and one necessary to assume.

Tania has a young son named Ivan who she dotes on. She has decorated their modest apartment with banners and tinsel, although he complains that he would rather celebrate with his friends. The next day, Tania and Ivan are confronted outside their building by a couple of cops who demand to see her papers. When she can only show them a health service id, they insist that she bring them back to her apartment where the papers (false, as it turns out) can be found. They are interested in finding out where she got the documents from and will pressure her to name the supplier, a thuggish Russian named Mr. Novak who controls her and her son through his power over her identification papers.

Tania tries to flee the cops who wrestle her to the ground. She cries out to Ivan to run away, which he does with mixed feelings. Now he will be on his own. Like all young men who complain about smother love, he will find it hard to live without her.

She is taken to a detention center where most of the action of this taut and powerful film takes place. It is in many ways a prison genre work, including a food fight done as comic relief, but with the added dimension of being a foreigner. Some of the most interesting scenes involve her in discussions with a female guard who has no enthusiasm for her job but needs the money. Tania develops close ties to another woman from Mali who has been beaten repeatedly for the guards by refusing to voluntarily return to her country. This is the same fate that awaits Tania as well.

In almost a documentary fashion, the film details the dehumanization that all jailed “illegal” immigrants face. In one truly memorable scene, we see Tania being “processed” through an airport building set up exclusively for deportees. After being forced to strip and put up with an invasive search (for god knows what), she is corralled into a tiny and poorly lit cell awaiting being put on a plane destined to Eastern Europe. It is like watching a steer being put through a meat packing house assembly line.

“Illegal” was directed by Oliver Masset-Depasse and stars Anne Coesens as Tania. She is brilliant.

In the press notes, the director is interviewed by Mattieu Recarte who asks:

Tania, the main character, is a Russian “illegal alien,” as the authorities say. Shouldn’t the French title have used the feminine spelling for illegal immigrant?

Masset-Depasse’s reply:

No, because it’s the “System,” a masculine word in French, that I consider “illegal,” not Tania. The administrative detention centers found in our countries, which supposedly respect human rights, are illegal. The vast majority of illegal immigrants held in these centers have had to flee extreme poverty, dictatorship, war etc., and when after an often trying and dangerous journey, they end up in our countries; we welcome them by putting them in prison. They are treated like criminals.

In fact, Belgium has already been convicted four times by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman or degrading treatment. That shows you to what extent my country lives up to its ideals.

Using a modesty of means, “Illegal” tells a story that is not only dramatically compelling but politically necessary. One would only hope that young American film-makers will follow suit.

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