Film Movement // 2010 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jake Ware (Retired) // July 5th, 2011
"It's the 'system' that I consider 'illegal', not Tania." -Writer/director Olivier Masset-Depasse
In 1998, Semira Adamu, a 20 year old Nigerian woman seeking asylum in Belgium, was suffocated to death by four Belgian police officers during an attempted deportation. A trial revealed that the tactics used in Samira's forced expulsion were in fact commonplace and routine. This case caused quite a sensation in Belgium at the time of Samira's death and again a few years later when the police officers were found guilty of contributing to her death.
Illegal, while not based directly on Adamu's life and death, was most likely inspired by these events as it tackles as its subject matter the capture, processing and attempted deportation of illegal immigrants in Belgium.
Tania, a Russian woman living in Belgium with her young son Ivan is refused residence. She makes the tough decision to go underground and live as an illegal immigrant. After a few years of successfully hiding from the authorities, she is caught and sent to a detention center to await deportation.
No matter how much we discuss the subject, world migration -- legal and illegal -- is here to stay. As transportation becomes quicker and more efficient, and modern cities more accessible, more and more people worldwide make their way to urban centers in wealthy countries whether they have permission to do so or not. Illegal immigration is a hot issue, the kind that politicians pin their entire campaigns on. 'Experts' debate the issue and kick it back and forth as if they were involved in a game of verbal soccer. And yet no one talks about the very real people that are the pawns in this game, who regularly have their lives turned upside down, risking everything for better opportunity for themselves or their families. And no matter what we think of the immigration debate today, or how hard governments work to keep illegals out of their countries, this is an issue that will not go away; in fact, it will only increase as the distribution of the world's wealth becomes more and more unbalanced.
Illegal is a thought provoking and moving story of ordinary people living extraordinary lives simply because of the randomness of their birthplace. Very little separates Tania from most Belgian citizens. She is hard working. She is besotted with her young son. She wants only to further herself and give her child as many opportunities as possible. However, because she happened to be born in the 'wrong' part of the world, her options are impossibly narrow and she has little choice but to live her existence in the no-man's land that is the life of an illegal alien. Illegal spends most of its 90 minute runtime at a fictional detention center where Tania is held as her deportation draws near. Life at the center is shown to be little better than prison with the forced expulsions hanging over the detainees' heads much like a death sentence might hang over the head of a death row inmate.
Illegal is swift and economical. It quickly gets to the crux of its thesis: the bureaucratic and systematic way in which a West European nation processes illegal immigrants. We are shown a confused system that tries hard to deport people, but that has to abide by human rights laws that prevent it from simply throwing people out of the country. The result is a strategic game that the system plays, a game that takes a great deal of time and resources, and that is ultimately cruel and a questionable use of tax payers' cash. Like so many government initiatives in many of our nations (the war on drugs, for example), the process of dealing with illegal aliens as portrayed in this film seems to be more about putting on a good show for the voters and the media than about actually arriving at a practical and, more importantly, realistic solution to a very real problem.
Illegal presents this debate from the immigrant's perspective. Of course, it does take sides, and there is never any doubt that we are meant to sympathize with the protagonist of the story. However, the film is neither heavy handed nor manipulative. Nothing that happens feels like it's out of the realm of possibility or presented with the sole intention of arousing an exaggerated emotional response from the viewer. Instead, the film is subtle.
Olivier Masset-Depasse must be applauded for tackling this emotional and very uncommercial topic for his sophomore feature outing. He does a great job of creating a realistic mood while pushing his story forward and hitting all the points that he is trying to make with his well written and intelligent script. The film was shot with handheld cameras that are constantly moving around the characters. The technique works well within the context of this film as it heightens the sense of realism. It looks and feels almost like a documentary.
The acting in Illegal is excellent across the board. All the actors appear completely natural and at no point did I have the impression that I was watching professionals performing scripted scenes. Anne Coesens especially is outstanding in the lead role. She delivers a performance of great complexity and does so through mostly physical acting and facial expressions as her dialogue is minimal. In Tania, she creates a complex and multi dimensional character, strong and willful while at the same time as vulnerable as an animal trapped at a shelter, awaiting euthanasia.
I'm afraid I have to say that the transfer of Illegal is not stellar. It suffers from heavy compression and there were many instances of the image pixelating, especially during the less contrasting scenes. This problem is persistent throughout the film, and while it does not detract from the strength of the story, it did call attention to itself. Illegal comes with a choice of a 2.0 stereo or a 5.1 surround track. Both are well mixed and executed.
Extras include a trailer and some basic text based biographies of the director and lead actress. I would have loved to have seen an interview with the director at least, or heard a commentary where he discusses his motivation for making this film as it feels like a very personal project. Film Movement have included a charming 20 minute Italian short, Rita, as part of this DVD, which was a nice touch. A reel of trailers for other Film Movement releases rounds off the package.
Illegal is a rare film that deals with a highly sensitive and timely subject without stooping to melodrama or manipulation. At the bottom of the debate about immigration, legal and illegal, there are very simple stories of people trying hard to make better lives for themselves. Like Michael Winterbottom's excellent In This World, Illegal humanizes those who are often dehumanized or reduced to mere statistics in the media. It shows the world through their perspective and experience. Perhaps it does not offer the whole picture of this complex and multi layered topic, but it offers a very solid and clear piece of the puzzle. I applaud director Olivier Masset-Depasse and his cast for putting together a thoughtful and mature work about an important subject.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jake Ware; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Film Movement
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French, Russian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French, Russian)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film
* Semira Adamu