INTERVIEW WITH WRITER/DIRECTOR PHILIPPE LIORET
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How did WELCOME come about as a project?
First of all, it came from a strong desire to make a film about this particular subject and no other. About people who, fleeing their homelands in distress, want at all costs to reach this Eldorado, which to their eyes is England. Yet after an improbable journey they find themselves stuck in Calais - frustrated, ill treated and humiliated- just a few kilometers from the English coastline that they can actually see from where they are. I was speaking about this one evening with Olivier Adam, and I realized that this place was a bit like the Mexican border, our Mexican border, and that it would only take a bit of digging into the subject to come up with a strong piece of drama. I spoke about it to Emmanuel Courcol, and we started thinking about a story that could take place in this framework.
How did you go about it?
Emmanuel and I contacted non-profit organizations that do whatever they can to help these people, and we left for Calais. For several days during an icy cold winter, we followed volunteers from these organisations and shared the infernal life of the refugees: the “jungle” where they find shelter, the smuggler’s extortion racket, the endless persecutions from the police – an entire riot police garrison is dedicated just to them – the refugee detention centers, the constant checks of trucks in which they have squeezed themselves in order to get onto the ferries, and in which they risk their lives trying to escape C02 detectors, heart monitors, scanners, among other things…
What most surprised us was the age of the refugees, the eldest wasn’t even 25. There are even kids around fifteen who set off alone on this mad journey. When we spoke with Sylvie Copyans from the Salam Organization, we learned that several of them, as a last resort, had even attempted to swim across the Channel. We returned to Paris after several days, our minds so full with what we had seen and experienced, that we didn’t exchange a single word during the car ride back.
How did the framework of the screenplay develop?
We were haunted by the story of a young boy who wanted to swim across the English Channel. We captured our characters and the story’s framework in two sentences – all the while wanting to ensure we weren’t creating a cheap “over-dramatization”, nor betray the truth of the refugee’s experience. The subject matter was so strong, and we felt our story was representative of the migrants’ reality, that sincerity would prevail.
That’s how Simon’s character came to be.
The documentary side to the story had to be left aside to bring the characters over to their personal stories, to the emotional interactions that condition everyone’s life and are often the reason behind everything. Observing the volunteers, I said to myself that some of them were bound to share their lives with someone who probably isn’t as committed and generous as they are. Simon is a fallible person, like all of us, he is far from perfect. At the beginning, like most people from Calais, he isn’t interested in the immigrant problem, he just puts up with it: As Marion, his ex-wife says : “He looks away and goes back home.” As a younger man, he just missed having a successful career in sports, and this failure has made him bitter. He has retreated into his life as a swimming instructor and today his only problem is that Marion has left him. When he meets Bilal, he helps him for all the wrong reasons. If he offers to take them in, Bilal and his friend Zoran, it’s only to impress Marion, to try and prove that he’s not the crazed individualist she thinks he is. He does all this in order to win her back. But things get out of control: helping an illegal immigrant is punishable by law.
He gets himself caught up in the middle of a spiral that he can’t control.
And the more he is sucked in, the more he becomes conscious of the complete injustice that pervades the situation, the more he becomes attached to Bilal.
Bilal, who wants to go to England to join Mîna. The film could also be summarized as follows: a man loses a woman and his life is turned upside-down. Another, younger man, loves a woman and wants to join her at all costs.
And these two destinies meet, colliding with the absurd world order. The film demonstrates how an encounter can help someone surpass himself.
The situation makes one think of a far from glorious time period, the Occupation…
Yes, all of this could have happened in 1943, and it could be the story of a guy who hides Jewish people in his house and gets caught. Except that this is happening today, two hundred kilometers from Paris.
Were you thinking of Vincent Lindon when you wrote the screenplay?
In my previous films, I often thought of him during the idea stage. First of all because I find him to be a hell of an actor and also because I feel a form of connection between us. But, at the writing stage, I try not to think about the actors and to focus on the characters. Except that this time, we had lunch together between the two stages. I told him about the story and he told me he would do the film without even reading the screenplay. Vincent is a kind-hearted guy and I think that beyond the character of Simon, he liked the idea of embarking on this particular project. So I was thinking about him while I wrote, and since that day nothing has contradicted our working together. However, people who know both our personalities were afraid that sparks would fly on the set. Yet, as we were both working towards the same goal – the film – there was an exceptional chemistry between us that was bound to influence the final result.
What kind of actor is he?
He is able to convey feelings with just a simple movement or posture. Often, thanks to him, you can do away with a word or a phrase. He is a man who gets involved, a perfectionist. As an actor, he is always ready to listen, and tries to ring true rather than make an impression. Thanks to all of that his portrayal of Simon is, i think, perfect. I know that after a film is made it is always polite to speak well of everyone, but here, with him, I definitely made a beautiful encounter, artistically and humanly speaking. We’ve spoken every day since the end of filming, and we see each other often. We’ll make other films together.
And Audrey Dana?
Audrey is what the Anglo-Saxons call “the girl next door”, the opposite of a starlet. It took me some time to find her. I needed a woman believable as a middle school teacher who goes to serve pasta to refugees just because of simple human engagement. Yet I didn’t want to see a militant suffragette turn up. I just needed a woman who felt good about herself and who had true inner generosity. Audrey has this generosity. She was a bit scared by the character of Marion, but she loved the story and I was sure she would be able to find her place in it. She’s someone who is whole, who takes things seriously without taking herself too seriously.
And how did you find Bilal?
It was like finding a needle in a haystack. The biggest part of the casting process. When we were writing the character, a 17 year old who only speaks Kurdish and English, and who with Vincent has to carry the film on his shoulders, we put ourselves into a cold sweat. I didn’t even know if this guy existed somewhere in the world. With Tatiana Vialle, the casting director, we traveled for weeks from Berlin to Istanbul, London, and Sweden where a large Kurdish community lives. Finally, we discovered Firat in France. Naturally, he wasn’t a professional actor and the first tests were…somewhat unusual. But he had a truth and intensity about him that made a difference.
Did he want to be an actor?
Not at all. He had come as an amateur. We even had to persuade him to do it, and convince his parents. I initially planned to work on the part with him, to rehearse a great deal, but in the end I preferred to leave him his naturalness, and I didn’t do anything. As the shooting date drew nearer, I became increasingly scared, and so did he. Once on the set, he was awed for three hours, then just as naturally he found his place and the right tone for the role.
There are also a number of non professional actors in the film.
All of the young Kurds that Bilal meets in Calais were found while searching for the actor who would play Bilal. Most of them come from Istanbul and Berlin. I learned a great deal from them. You have to film quickly, not rehearsing too much, letting them evolve without overly “framing” them. It was a great adventure for them – moreover for me as well. It allowed me to make a few wonderful discoveries: Derya, for example, who plays Mîna, turned out to be an exceptional actress and now wishes to pursue the acting profession. I filmed a very complicated scene with her in one take, without rehearals,relying solely on her instinct. She is incredible. Many other actors whom I like very much have already taken part in my previous films: Emmanuel
Courcol my co-scriptwriter, Blandine Pélissier, Eric Herson-Macarel, Gilles Masson… And then Tatiana had me meet key people like Olivier Rabourdin, who plays the police lieutenant - a super complicated role because we see 45 cops a day in TV shows and he had to find a way to make this one unconventional. Patrick Ligarde, the neighbor-informer, Thierry Godard, Jean-Pol Brissard, Yannick Renier…
As in many of your films, the set is a character in itself.
Particularly for the public swimming pool which acts as a catalyst: not only does it evoke Simon’s failed career as a swimming champion, but it is also where Bilal learns to swim with the hope of crossing the Channel. It was very important for me to film right at the actual places where the action occurs. When you shoot in real places, you tell the story better: the streets of Calais, the gigantic Trans-Channel port, Blériot beach and its nonstop ferries coming and going…all these atmospheres give the film its truthful nature. In order to emphasize this realistic aspect, the producer Christophe Rossignon and I made a point of not going to shoot in the Czech Republic or in Romania, as often happens for budgetary reasons. The film greatly benefits from this decision.
The direction is omnipresent, yet the camera feels almost invisible.
There aren’t a whole lot of possibilities for the camera to shoot a scene well, so you have to find the right one. I spend my time asking actors to be truthful, but the camera can also in its own way strike a “false note”. If the camera is too noticeable in a scene, if its movements are pointless or ornamental, you think: “Oh yes, it’s make-believe” and I always have the impression that instead of gaining, you lose something. And then, as a moviegoer, when I like a film, it’s as if I were given a gift. But if the work is too noticeable, then it gives me the feeling that the price tag was left on the package.
In the first 15 minutes of the film, it feels as if you are discovering an unknown world (in France).
And yet so near. It’s also a good thing at the cinema to discover the country we live in from another angle, one that we don’t know. Concerning the problem of migrants, refugees and illegal aliens, an increasing number of television shows that are devoted to the subject end up getting lost in the media circus. The end result is that all of these reports and debates, all of this indignation serves no purpose because their message has been drowned out. So I prefer making a film, telling a story on the big screen of these two men – and these two women - confronted with their emotions, in the middle of this whole mess. And at the same time hoping to touch the viewer sitting in the dark, helping him or her to form their own opinion about it all. And hoping that the film will stay with them for a while.
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