Refugees: Harbouring the ‘Living Dead’ in Le Harve
A container from Africa is opened to reveal a cargo of refugees. To the watching workers they are more of the “living dead”. A boy escapes, pursuing his quest to find his mother in England. All that separates mother and son is the English Channel and the French national security forces.
At a time when traditional media often seem incapable of effectively communicating the plight of refugees, Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki has reached out in his latest film, Le Harve.
At the Normandy port in 2011, there is no welcome for young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Instead he becomes a major threat to national security. His luck changes when he meets Marcel Marx (André Wilms) who was a bohemian in a much earlier Paris life. He works as a shoe-shiner, struggling to keep himself and wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) fed.
Like all classic quests, the ‘ordinary’ people display the courage and compassion that the broader society and their rulers often lack. Aki has created a time warp of old-fashioned characters. His local heroes would fit better in the 1940s or 1950s. They live in a struggling neighbourhood near the port.
It is a close community with the exception of the ‘denouncer’, a local collaborator in a part of France occupied by the harsh realities of the 21st century. The local shopkeepers, the publican and her maritime worker customers, the elderly doctor and hospital staff, the Vietnamese shoe-shiner, the dog Laika and even police detective Monet all form part of this fraternité. They are a modern resistance that becomes part of the people smugglers’ escape route. Their business model, as it’s referred to in Australia, has a light touch with a fundraising appearance of the iconic Little Bob (Roberto Piazza) in concert. Now he’s an original!
The serious theme is presented with warmth and dry humour using Aki’s minimalist style:
- An early exchange across the generations – Marcel: “Ne m’appelez pas monsieur.” (Don’t call me sir.) Idrissa: “Oui mon general!” (Yes my general)
- When Marcel makes a ‘family’ visit to a detention centre, he claims that he is an albino brother.
- There is gentle irony as refugees camp on the coast at Dunkirk, hoping for a boat to take them to England.
- And my favourite from their cash economy culture is “Money moves at dusk.” (L’argent circule au crepuscule).
It is a fantasy, so “miracles do happen”. But there are no answers proposed in what Aki calls “this anyhow unrealistic film”.
It’s a political movie but it is not preaching. As Aki explained when interviewed last year:
“The European cinema has not much addressed the continuously worsening financial, political, and above all, moral crisis that has lead to the ever-unsolved question of refugees; refugees trying to find their way into the EU from abroad, and their irregular, often substandard treatment.”
Despite these concerns it’s not a morality play. When asked, “To symbolize immigration you have chosen a young boy from Africa. Is youth the icon of hope?”, Kaurismäki responded: “There are no symbols in my films, but in general I trust youngsters more than people like me. Which isn’t too much, yet. At least I trust Blondin Miguel, the actor of the boy, without limits.”
Welcome is an earlier French cinematic treatment of the plight of refugees in 21st Century Europe. It has numerous similarities, including a friendship between a local man and a boy, but it is a much bleaker tale than Le Harve. In this scenario, a 17 year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq plans to swim the channel.
Given that the arrival of ‘boat people’ is a highly contentious and emotive issue in Australia, Le Harve is a story that all Australians should see. It is a pity that, as a foreign language film, it will probably only be shown on our Special Broadcasting Service channel following its limited cinema release.
Coincidentally, for fans of ‘reality TV’, SBS has an award-winning series Go Back To Where You Came From that can be viewed online. It’s a simple but engaging concept:
Six ordinary Australians agree to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers by embarking on a confronting 25-day journey. Tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia, they travel to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world, with no idea what is in store for them along the way.
Deprived of their wallets, phones and passports, they board a leaky refugee boat, are rescued mid-ocean, experience immigration raids in Malaysia, live in a Kenyan refugee camp and visit slums in Jordan before ultimately making it to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, protected by UN Peacekeepers and the US military. For some of them it’s their first time abroad. For all of them, it’s an epic journey and the most challenging experience of their lives.
Why not try the first episode here.
The treatment of refugees by developed countries continues to be a major international low point. In Australia it generates far more heat than the numbers of asylum seekers should justify. The European experience seems no brighter.
We rarely see the stories that can help to overcome the fears of people in the countries where they seek help. Perhaps the power of the moving image can go some of the way to overcoming this lack.
If you don’t manage to see Le Harve at the cinema, keep a close eye out for it in other media. You won’t be disappointed.