Acclaimed French director Philippe Lioret was in Sydney to promote his controversial drama Welcome, a film which presses many hot button topics such as illegal immigration and the French government’s stance on the issue, which has brought with it much debate.
Mr Lioret graciously took some time out in his busy schedule to talk about the film, its politics, and about how he is a filmmaker not looking to change minds but open hearts.
You cast Firat Ayverdi, an unknown, in the role of Bilal. Where did you come across Firat, and how did he come about to be cast in Welcome?
When writing the film, it was difficult to imagine who could play Bilal: 17 Years old; Kurdish; able to speak English; and to be able to swim and play football very well. So we began a big casting process. We started in Turkey, and then went to England, and then Berlin, Germany...anywhere where there is a big Kurdish community. Finally we found Firat in Paris, in their Kurdish community.
But first we cast Derya (Ayverdi, who plays Bilail’s girlfriend Mina ). We asked her if she knew some young guys who would be interested in the role. She said: “No, except maybe my brother who is a jerk and has nothing to do with acting”. He came in, and he was a jerk! (laughs) But when I looked at his test on the monitor, he was the only one who touched me. Finally I asked him if he wanted to do the role.
He wasn’t an actor, but he had an innocence and was very natural. After the test I said: “Now you are going to read the script, and you are going to understand that you will need to practice a lot, because it is very physical”.
I also asked him: “What is your sport”. And he said water polo. Can you imagine! Do you know a water polo player? No. And a Kurdish water polo player? No.
Although the film is very political, it contains some humorous elements, and at its core revolves around two love stories. Is it a hard task to try and weave these elements together without losing its central message?
There is no message. A good drama is a story about life, and in life it’s sometimes funny, sometimes sad. I was looking for the truth. I knew the problems with refugees, because I spent time with them. So after I tried to forget (the politics), I only wanted to work on the drama. I started with the characters, and the characters brought the drama. The characters told me their story, and I wrote what they said. I followed the characters.
Vincent Lyndon plays an apolitical character. Is it your hope that Welcome will sway those with no strong political feelings to question the international community’s attitude towards illegal immigration?
No. It’s not my job. I am a filmmaker. I want to make films for the people. After the film, if they are happy, if they feel something, if they cry, if they laugh, then I am ok. If something stays in their brain and they feel something different about you or another guy on the street, why not? But it is not my job to change the world. My job was to make the film only.
Do you believe that a film – or any other artistic endeavour, be it music, etc. – does hold the power to change things?
Probably. But over the long term... if it makes you focus on something that is always good.
You have presented the conditions which these refugees live in vivid detail. What have you experienced in regards to how these people live and are treated?
I spent 6 weeks living with them. Day and night in the 2 last weeks. It was ugly, their way of life. They were so young. I had a very special relationship with them, and I listened to them. What they said to me is that they are full of life, they came from a country of war, and they escaped their country because they don’t want to die. You know, we will never change this.... If you were born in Afghanistan, you will be in Calais right now. There is no other issue for them.
It seems absurd that a refugee would attempt to swim the Chanel, but it has been attempted, hasn’t it?
Oh yes! You know, it’s a sporting performance and many people do it, but with a boat following them and a crew in the boat. It’s 30 kilometres. You can see England right in front of you. After months without money, with the impossibility to cross over by truck or boat, they (refugees) try to cross by swimming. Most of them are sent back to the French coast because of the currents.
The hurdles which refugees go through to reach our shores are astounding. Is it your belief that a true citizen is one who sacrifices and overcomes obstacles in order to reach the country of their destination?
They don’t want to be French citizens! The only want to cross the Channel to go in England, because there is work for them. There are communities, friends, and they speak the language. They don’t ask to be English or to be French. They just want to survive. A good citizen should be able to help them.
The main theme of the film is intolerance. Where does the intolerance stem from? Is it fear? Racism?
The main them of the film is love. It has nothing to say about intolerance. The intolerance is behind the subject. If you want to know what I think about the intolerance of the French Government... not of the French citizen, they are just afraid because of this law (which holds a max 5 year jail sentence from assisting illigal immigrants). If this law will change, the people will change.
Welcome is now showing through Palace Pictures.