Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

And all they will call you will be deportee

By Nora Lee Mandel

Written and Directed by Olivier Masset-Depasse
Produced by Jacques-Henri and Olivier Bronckart
Released by Film Movement
Belgium/France. 95 min. Not Rated in U.S.
In French and Russian with English subtitles
With: Anne Coesens, Esse Lawson, Tomasz Bialkowski and Alexandre Gontcharov

Illégal goes harrowingly inside the legal morass faced by illegal immigrants.

The prologue in October 2000 sets up Tatiana (Anne Coesens) as a nervous Russian immigrant mother in Belgium. A former French teacher, she encourages her small son Ivan to speak only French to blend in. As an illegal immigrant, her own method is more agonizing – burning off her fingerprints with an iron.

Jumping seven years on, she seems to have found a comfortable niche. She's working as an office building cleaner and is friendly enough with co-worker Zina (Olga Zhdanova) to enviously joke about wishing she too were from dictatorial Belarus so she could apply for political asylum. Her son (Alexandre Gontcharov) is fitting in enough at school to resent her 13th birthday plans for him at home. But her happiness is precarious. Trusting the advice of her sleazy landlord Mr. Nowak (Tomasz Bialkowski), she riles the suspicions of cops sweeping for IDs, even as she manages to distract them enough for Ivan to run away.

From then on the film vividly brings the audience into the purgatory of an immigrant detention center, where deportation hangs as a constant sword of Damocles over all the women. That she's white and educated seems to give her a tactical edge at first, over her cell mates from Chile, Maria (Gabriela Perez), and Mali, Aïssa (Esse Lawson), as she thinks she can outsmart the system. Very little about Tatiana's past is revealed to us to explain her ferocious determination not to go back to Russia --there's references to a bastard of a husband and unemployment – and she is even more silent to the authorities at first, so she will only be known by a number. With difficulty, she learns to deal with the lines, rules, claustrophobic conditions, lack of privacy, and brusque staff, even as she finds a sympathetic woman guard who defends taking this thankless job to support her own kid. Tatiana figures she can tolerate any thing so that she can call her son and get out as soon as possible to be with him. But day by day, month by month, as an anonymous detainee takes a stressful toll on her, physically and mentally, particularly because her son is paying off the rent by running errands for the landlord's nefarious businesses. Just overheard on the phone or seen through barred windows, her son's emotional ups and downs of guilt and love tear out our hearts as much as hers.

The story starts devolving into a socially conscious women's prison drama, like Pablo Trapero'a Lion's Den (Leonera) (2008), what with Aissa returning to the cell beaten and bruised, and many of the inmates interned with children, including Maria, and the women bonding and helping each other as they can. But then the focus shifts to the legal limbo that entraps Tania. Time and again she comes up with strategies to try to manipulate the system, and time and again international bureaucracy (even from her immigrant rights group lawyer), threats and much worse bodily harm try to defeat her and send her back alone. She discovers that her best friend was keeping secrets from her – just as she herself has had to keep secrets. Even among sympathetic civilians she appeals to on the outside, some shrug that it can't be that bad to go home, and she rages against their obliviousness. How long can she keep up her spirit and resist? Coesens brings such extraordinary yet empathetic toughness to Tatiana that her super-human efforts to reunite with her son have more credibility than any Hollywood super-hero movie.

Even as investigators have again and again excoriated conditions at immigrant detention centers around the world, not just in Belgium as cited here, films have only provided glimpses inside before what is usually inevitable deportation, including Africans in Eliane de Latour's Beyond the Ocean (2008) and Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor (2007), and South Americans in National Geographic TV's Border Wars. By providing a more extended, albeit exhaustingly depressing, view inside this too often hidden world, writer/director Olivier Masset-Depasse emotionally makes his case that the title refers to the system, not the individuals caught up in it.

March 27, 2011

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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