Phillippe Lioret’s award-winning film, Welcome, zooms in on the anti-Muslim attitudes now gripping much of the Western world. The result is compelling, poignant, and profoundly tragic.
At the center of the story is Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a seventeen-year-old Iraqi Kurd who has somehow traveled to Calais, a small city on the northern coast of France. While the details of his voyage out of Kurdistan are sketchy, it is obvious that the trip has exacted a horrifying toll and viewers see Bilal as he struggles with the emotional aftermath—in flashbacks—of having been tortured by police as he moved from country to country.
At the same time, Bilal is bullheaded, and fiercely determined not to let political and social roadblocks deter him. After all, he knows what he wants: His goal is to reach England and be reunited with the girl of his dreams, Mina, and join a Manchester soccer team.
But how to get there? After several failed attempts to hide in vehicles headed for Britain, Bilal decides to swim the thirty-two kilometer English Channel that separates Calais from his desired destination. To do this, Bilal needs to become more adept in the water and he enrolls in classes taught by instructor Simon Calmat (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged former Olympian.
At first, the kid repels Simon—he is clearly illegal and Simon wants no part in aiding and abetting him. His lessons, which Bilal has paid for, are perfunctory, the work of a teacher who couldn’t care less whether his student learns or not. Then something happens that causes Simon to have a change of heart. After he is served his divorce papers, Simon abruptly decides to help Bilal. This shift, of course, has nothing to do with the boy, but is instead a calculated attempt to win back Marion (Audrey Dana), his ex.
The reasoning is simple: Marion volunteers at an outdoor soup kitchen that feeds undocumented and homeless men, and Simon believes that if Marion learns that he is helping Bilal—even going so far as to put him up in his flat—she will be so touched that she’ll return to him. Sound far-fetched? Well, yeah. But what often happens in everyday life happens here. That is, the one-on-one encounters between Simon and Bilal result in life-transforming changes in Simon. As he gets to know Bilal and hears his story, the young man morphs from the Alien Other into someone for whom Simon feels deep respect and admiration.
In short order, Simon is driven to act, ignoring French immigration law to help Bilal reach his journey’s end. The risks are enormous. At one point, Simon’s neighbors report him to police, prompting an investigation into whether he is harboring an undesirable foreigner. It’s grim stuff, calling up seventy-year-old images of Christians protecting Jews, queers, and communists from Nazi thugs.
Lioret’s rendering is sympathetic without ever becoming maudlin. Simon comes across as painfully real—as do Bilal and his always-scheming friends and associates. At the same time, Welcome’s reach extends beyond the personal to the political, in this case highlighting the lunacy of France’s immigration policies—policies that elevate demonization over understanding and judgment over compassion. The end result is a film that makes us wonder what we can do to help the strangers in our midst. What’s more, it asks us whom we—as a society and as individuals—are willing to welcome, and why.