We Shall Overcome? The Problem of Self Infatuation in Western Ideology and Conflict Resolution

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Wildly popular in modern culture, the medium of film operates as a pseudo canvas upon which current and historical social issues can be portrayed, then discussed, via cinematic narratives. In recent times, the topic of immigration and ‘the foreigner’ have been addressed frequently. Given the global culture which exists today, the question of the “other” is an important matter, with very real ramifications. The “other” or ‘the foreigner,’ seeking a sense of home in an adopted land, is faced with a myriad of struggles and prejudices. Many films carefully scrutinize this issue, hoping to assess the inhibitions and stereotypes which we, as a global society, must overcome in order to universalize ourselves and bring an end to the mistreatment of the theoretical “other.” In this paper, the use of the term “theoretical” in association with the “other” is deliberate. According to Karl Marx, the constructions of the social hierarchies historically, and the relationships that these hierarchies entail, are merely the artificially contrived products of the human mind, and fundamentally not so different from other manufactured items, such as linen. However, artificial and contrived though they may be, with the passage of time, many socially generated constructs seem to insinuate themselves into the deeper fabric of society and assume the status of firmly embedded facts. Consequently, they often come to be accepted as part of the natural order of things. Thus, the members of any given society tend to unintentionally quarantine themselves from the capacity to recognize the malleable nature of such human relations.

Phillip Lioret, in his 2009 film, Welcome, intends to draw public attention to the plight of illegal migrants as they pass through France, viewing it as a stepping stone to a better life and refugee status in the United Kingdom beyond. In retrospect, it is very likely that Lioret’s effort did have some positive effects. However, by means of a critical evaluation of Lioret’s film, this essay will demonstrate that though his intentions were admirable, his purported goal, if not impossible, may very well be, considering human nature (his own notwithstanding) and the inner workings of the human mind, highly implausible. At the very least, this film reinforces certain stereotypes and attitudes and exhibits some of the very influences of the “false consciousness” that Marx warns us against. Welcome thus severely dampens the embers of passion (i.e. the resistance to and/or reversal of such influences) that he, Lioret, is attempting to rekindle.

By falling prey to the same sort of “false consciousness” as his protagonist Simon, Lioret’s attack on the oppressiveness of the French state inadvertently reaffirms the social hierarchy which is embedded in his French cultural ideology: that French greatness will triumph, and French virtue will ultimately prevail, thus eventually resulting in a better situation for the migrant. In reality, this essentially aggrandizes the French people while, at the same time, downgrading the migrants themselves to a secondary and less significant position.

In order to decisively address the matters of contention regarding the “other,” one must necessarily first overcome the specter of “false consciousness” which permeates human societies and which has been ingrained in each individual since birth, as a result of the subtle processes of acculturation.

The term “false consciousness” derives from the Marxist theory of ideology and commodity fetishism and refers to the systematized distortion of social relations in the collective subconscious of citizens who comprise any given social system. Such distortions create lasting impressions upon the ideological processes of the aforementioned subordinates, causing them to regard themselves, their contemporaries, and their positions in the world, through clouded lenses. Their own self image is frequently distorted and function according to their own position, vis a vis the “other,” within the hierarchical structure of the social system to which they happen to belong. Many have failed to truly identify, or even fully perceive for that matter, the exact trials and tribulations that the “other” must surmount in order to achieve any semblance of equality. This lack of recognition begs the question: How easily can an individual overcome the long-standing conditioning of social ideologies which permeate the undercurrents of every human society, and how effectively can the artistry of cinema function as a medium of social discourse to countermand this socially conceived concept of “other?” Even Lioret, whose very purpose in creating Welcome is to stress the importance of overcoming this collective impotence in order to liberate oneself from social ideologies, is unknowingly or, perhaps, unconsciously, saturated with this very same “false consciousness.”

Focusing on the Sangatte refugee crisis which occurred near the Northern French coastal town of Calais between 1999-2002, Welcome seeks to illuminate the plight of migrants illegally crossing the border into France in an attempt to reach the United Kingdom, where they eventually hope to obtain refugee status. The narrative centers on one particular Kurdish refugee, Bilal. At the film’s outset, Bilal has already traveled many miles in his effort to reach the UK, where it is his intent to reunite with his fiance, Mina. Bilal’s stop in Calais is his final destination prior to traversing the channel en route to London.

As it turns out, all of Bilal’s efforts to cross over to England are ultimately thwarted. With virtually no other recourse available to him, Bilal concludes that he must swim across the channel. It goes without saying that this would be a monumental undertaking for anyone, let alone an under nourished teenage boy. The task is further complicated by the fact that Bilal does not know how to swim. His determination and perseverance to acquire such skills eventually leads him to cross paths with Simon, a French local who runs Calais’ public swimming pool. Trapped in the aftermath of a marriage gone sour, Simon’s life is enriched as he befriends Bilal, providing him with counsel and aiding him in his endeavor to cross the border. Following the many traditional modes of documentary film, Welcome shatters the illusion of France as an altruistic country which always stands at the ready to provide aid to the masses of destitute migrants seeking liberation from the oppressive regimes of their homelands. Echoing the old adage: “When you point one finger, there are three more pointing back at you,” Lioret adopts an introspective format, directing his critique inwardly, and postulating the argument that the humanitarian crisis faced by France’s migrant population is not merely the aftermath of the country’s racially discriminatory immigration policies, but is also a byproduct of the complacent nature of the French people themselves.

In his socio-realistic manner, Lioret maintains that the immigration laws of the French government are all-encompassing and all-powerful, tending to dehumanize its illegal migrants, relegating them to the status of leeches, and thus spawning a virtually impenetrable system into which they cannot possibly hope to assimilate and placing their very survival in jeopardy. The magnitude of this accusation is not, in any way, lessened by the seemingly unresponsive sentiments of the French people who sheepishly accept the status quo, finding themselves powerless to fight a battle for human rights and social reform against the French/Imperial Leviathan which promotes this war on the “other” under the guise of law and justice. The Imperial nature of such legislation is not the exclusive ‘property’ of the French government, but is also a disease which inflicts the British government which exerted pressure on France to secure its borders and claim responsibility for the joint problem of illegal immigration. Seeking to rattle the cages of French complacency and stimulate fresh social discourse, Lioret’s film emphasizes the need for the cultural transformation of the French nation, and new venues of political discussion.

The Other: Reaffirming the Stereotypes

As the film opens, Lioret’s socio-realism immediately comes to the forefront as the film initially adopts the point of view of the illegal migrant trapped in a struggle against a disembodied and metaphysical adversary, the French government and its confusing and oppressive immigration laws. Historical landmarks and beautiful landscapes prominently exhibited in Welcome (e.g. the channel or the famed cliffs of Dover) are seen, not as objects for aesthetic viewing pleasure, but as markers of the migrant’s progress, points and places along the way, and obstacles to be penetrated or overcome. Thus, survival becomes a key component of the story. Nearly every venue of action available to the illegal migrant is sub-optimal, and potentially fatal.

Albeit, in making the film Welcome Lioret seeks to submerge viewers in the realities of the migrant’s strife, at times by assuming the very view point of the migrant, the effects of Lioret’s use of the racist tools and the stereotypes of the “other” are misleading, and actually counter-productive in terms of his goals: public education as to the plight of the migrant and identifying the source of the refugee’s dilemma.

In Lioret’s supposedly ground-breaking dialogue concerning the plight of the illegal migrant, a rather predictable mode of story telling surfaces, it is one in which the illegal migrant is cast in the role of victim, with the Caucasian (in this instance, a French citizen) as the hero. Despite being heralded as a film which seriously, yet sensitively, grapples with issues of human rights, the “sensitivity” of Welcome seems no more gentle than a punch in the gut. The primary reason for the success of Welcome, arguably, is its reliance on the tried and true method of casting the white protagonist as the savior of the helpless migrant child, as is exemplified by the success of other such films, like Gran Torino. By cloaking Bilal in a mantle of naivité, the viewer is almost pushed into regarding him as childish and uninformed, easily falling prey to the delusional fantasy which befalls many refugees, and thus making him an optimal candidate to be saved by the virtuous figure of the French “father,” personified, a role eventually assumed by Simon.

Bilal’s child-like innocence and infatuation with Western culture immediately makes him a likable character for Lioret’s target audience. Similar to Hollywood’s promulgation of the “good Arab” stereotype, such as that displayed by Al-Ghazi in The Kingdom, Bilal demonstrates the same desire for assimilation and submersion in Western society. On a frigidly cold evening, Simon happens upon Bilal and his friend, Zoran, walking down a city street. After inviting them to spend the night at his apartment and ordering a pizza, viewers learn that, like any teenage boy anywhere, Bilal enjoys gorging himself on junk food. While the trio munches happily on their dinner, Simon learns that Bilal aspires to play soccer for the UK’s famous Manchester Club, a rather lofty “pipe dream,” but, nonetheless, admirable in the eyes of the film’s capitalist viewers who can appreciate Bilal’s steadfast, hard working nature. Upon entering Simon’s apartment, Zoran had noticed and now inquires about a medal sitting on Simon’s bookshelf. “Is this gold?” he asks. While Bilal, momentarily awestruck, demands to know if Simon was a champion swimmer, Zoran has something else in mind. Having recently lost five hundred dollars on an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border in the back of a semi, due, ironically, to Bilal’s inability to hold his breath long enough to escape the detection of the border patrol’s CO2 detectors, Zoran views this as an opportunity to make some money. Although viewers are not completely aware of the implications of his inquiry at the time, it is revealed, later on, that Zoran steals the medal in order to pay his way across the border. He is not the only “other” who is willing to go to such extremes to make his way across the border, however. This impression of the “other” is further propagated by the more violent outbursts of another refugee at Sangatte who had accompanied Bilal and Zoran in the semi. He frequently threatens Bilal, insisting that he repay him the five hundred dollars that he forfeited when Bilal’s “breath-holding” episode curtailed their attempt to cross the channel. Thus, an enduring and timeless  Americanized “Sinbad-esque” stereotype of the Middle Eastern/Arab “other” is reestablished and reaffirmed; they are not trustworthy people. The Western, and even, Disney, portrayal of what was once a Middle Eastern hero (Sinbad) has subsequently been cast on all and any persons who share Sinbad’s exotic desert origins and dark skin tone, placing them in an unflattering light, claiming that they are often prone to violence and terror, and showing them kindness only runs the risk of being taken advantage of by their cunning and thief-like nature (Ouyang). To a certain degree, Bilal, the “good Arab” typecast, is portrayed as the victim of, not only the French system, but also of the seemingly barbaric tendencies of Middle Eastern culture, again, much like the good Arab Al-Ghazi of The Kingdom who, despite a few unlikable habits, is a generally good man.

The narrative enveloping Bilal’s task of border hopping is intensified and propelled forward by yet another troublesome typecasting of the Middle Eastern “other.” While Bilal had initially anticipated that his arrival in London would be swift and relatively uncomplicated, his difficulty in securing passage to the British border is made more unbearable by the oppressive circumstances suffered by his lover, Mina. Based on an assumption which is still widely popular in Western society, Mina must suffer the indignities imposed upon her by a domineering father, who, in typical Middle Eastern male fashion, reigns over both Mina and her mother.

In one tell-all scene, Mina and her family visit the restaurant of a cousin in London. While neither Mina nor her siblings seem to know the man, it is immediately evident that he is very infatuated with Mina. As she walks past him on her way to the family’s table, he eyes her hungrily, surveying her body. This scene is swollen with rather depraved and incestuous implications, and it is later established that Mina’s father intends to marry her to this cousin. This serves to more fully intensify the need for Bilal to cross the border as soon as possible, for not to do so would cost him the love of his life forever. The overwhelming power of the male in the familial relations of the “other” are exemplified as Bilal explains to Simon that: “If he wants her to marry this cousin, he will do it.” Lioret draws on this traditional assumption regarding the oppression of the Middle Eastern woman in order to add further substance to his story. Mina’s situation may or may not be typical, in any event, it nonetheless renders Bilal’s eventual failure to achieve his goal even more horrific; she, too, becomes the victim, deemed to live out her life in misery, subservient to a man she does not and likely can never love, all according to the dictates of the non-western culture of the “other.” This decisive casting of Mina’s unique plight as a woman makes Bilal’s eventual failure to cross the border infinitely more depressing as she is consequently doomed to live a hideous life as deemed appropriate by her culture.

Any semblances of autonomy and or the capacity to resist or protest are virtually nonexistent in Lioret’s depiction of the female “other.” The apathy portrayed by Mina’s mother is both infuriating and heart-breaking. In one scene, viewers witness Mina’s father angrily pushing her into a chair while commanding her to never speak again with Bilal. From the doorway, Mina’s mother stands and witnesses the event, never once voicing an opposition to this mistreatment of her child, although the expression on her face hints that she may feel uncomfortable with this scenario. While it is clear in her phone conversations with Bilal that Mina detests the idea of her arranged marriage, viewers never see Mina speaking of her unhappiness to either of her parents, and Mina’s mother continuously sits idly and quietly. How much sympathy Mina’s mother feels for her daughter is relatively unknown, but it is clear that she will make no attempt to reconcile the situation.

Admittedly, Lioret is clearly suggesting that the reactions of, or lack thereof, Mina’s mother are not truly born of apathy, but rather stem from her resignation to her own similar situation. She, too, has very likely been trapped for years in a loveless marriage. The point is that the viewer has never been made privy to the relationship between Mina’s parents, and thus are not in a position to judge the situation clearly. Beyond this, even if Mina’s mother has suffered a similar fate, this certainly does not grant either film maker or viewer a license to judge this particular situation as typical. Ultimately, Mina is in desperate need of liberation, a liberation which is totally dependent on the kindness extended by a faraway Frenchman to Bilal. Thus, the helplessness of the formerly colonized reaffirms the identity of France as patriarch.

The eventual death of Bilal, though sobering, gives a false impression of the exact trials and tribulations of the migrant which impresses upon its audience the horrors of the illegal migrant, and reaffirms a common doom for the “other.” Much as Bayoumi suggests in his essay “The Race is On,” assimilation of the “other” into the Western culture which is dominated by whites is no more than a myth. The “other” can never truly ascertain the status of the white, and, much like the fate of Al-Ghazi, Bilal’s death serves as the ultimate stamp of alienation. While death remains a very real possibility, it is not the only possible outcome. Were this the case, the only migrant problem France would have faced with the Sangatte refugees is what they should have done with all of the dead bodies. However, the death of the innocent Bilal works to further instill a feeling of guilt and inner turmoil which motivates post 9/11 Western viewers to popularize and applaud the film.

The use of racist tools as a means to inspire a change in French consciousness and ideology is inherently problematic in terms of resolving the dilemma faced by migrants, be they in France or elsewhere. It is true that degradation and typecasting of the “other” in Welcome does succeed in fueling a sense of angst in white-skinned Europeans that demands to know: “What would you do?”, but do the means justify the ends?

The Hero: Reaffirming the Stereotypes

It is not only the construction of the “other” which is troubling, however. All of the aforementioned stereotypes do very little to highlight the realities and sources which holistically contribute to the migrant’s plight, and in essence, they do more to advance the narrative and assuage the guilt of white Europeans than to work as a means of alleviating suffering among refugees. In the end, it is Simon who will transform from the vessel of French ineptitude to the figure of French redemption and moral consciousness. Consequently, Bilal’s story falls to the wayside, ending in his untimely death that was likely anticipated since the first few scenes of the film.

Somewhat wandering through a state of helplessness in his own life as he watches his ex-wife Marion drift further and further from his grasp, Simon is the embodiment of impassivity. This general indifference extends to nearly every aspect of his life.

In one scene, Simon runs into Marion while shopping at the local grocer’s. On their way out, the couple witnesses an unpleasantly nasty display of racism on the part of the store owner and his sales clerk. A small group of refugees had entered the store with the intention of buying food and soap. However, they are abruptly denied entrance by the store’s clerk, who asserts that the presence of so many migrants “upsets” the other customers. Marion, impulsively driven by her outrage, inquires of an elderly woman whether or not allowing the migrants to purchase their necessities would be bothersome. The store owner quickly intervenes to diffuse the situation, demanding that the refugees leave. After exiting the store, Marion scolds Simon for his failure to protest such blatant injustice. With a “c’est la vie” sort of attitude, Simon brushes the incident aside, deeming it unfortunate, but unavoidable, and unworthy of any further emotional investment. Tout de suite, the scene ends, leaving the disagreeable feelings that Simon harbors for Marion. Thus, a sort of callous impotency is portrayed by Simon. His indifferent nature seems to be a recurring problem, both in his personal life and in his life as a moral and political agent of his own culture, indeed, he is but a microcosm of a much larger problem.

Facing the nearly inescapable reality of losing Marion, Simon initially regards his relationship with Bilal as a means to rekindle Marion’s love for him, aiding Bilal for the wrong reasons. In agreeing to teach Bilal to swim, he comes across as indifferent and unconcerned, likely realizing Bilal’s intentions to cross the channel, but making no effort to prevent him from doing so. However, as he learns more about Bilal’s dreams and plans for the future, the attitude of Simon does eventually change. Developing a parent-child bond with Bilal, Simon cares for him in his own loving way, and viewers are led to believe that his motives have become more altruistic. In one impassioned scene, Simon calls the border patrol to retrieve Bilal from the channel, even claiming that Bilal is his own son. Rather like the relationship established between elderly American Walt and teenage Hmong Thao in Gran Torino, inwhich Walt teaches Thao, in his limited time, how to behave appropriately as a man in order to liberate himself from the lowly crimes and lifestyle of Asian street gangs, so too does Simon teach Bilal, in the means available to him, to liberate himself from the culture he is fleeing.

Lioret metaphorically represents Simon’s transformation into a morally conscious political agent, and his sidestepping of the law as his true masculinity; he fights for honor, righteousness, and dignity, and these are higher values than those purported by his government. In fact, the selfless actions and unprecedented compassion of Simon even serve to affect the actions of a particular immigration service detective who realizes that Simon has harbored and aided at least one refugee, but ultimately does not arrest him for his “crimes.”

Although, the likelihood of any immigration officer sympathetically overlooking the legal misgivings of any French citizen, especially at the risk of losing his job, is slim to none, this is not the only problem with Simon’s representation. While Lioret’s depiction of Simon does not necessarily suggest that the average, middle class French man can change the world alone, it does suggest that he can change himself, and perhaps some of his neighbors by virtue of his example, by establishing a personal connection with the “other.” Thus, viewers are conditioned to hold that, albeit Bilal’s death is unfortunate and tear-jerking, at least some good came from it: at least Simon has become a better person because he met this one particular migrant. The story of Welcome purports a type of “adopt a migrant” attitude, a rather unrealistic and impractical solution to the monumentally big cross cultural issue of the refugee crisis while simultaneously dramatizing the death of the “other,” and promulgating their position beneath their French superiors.

The Final Conclusion

Despite his intention to overcome French ideology in order to critique a serious humanitarian crisis which he believes the French government and people have failed to appropriately address, Lioret’s Welcome falls short in assessing the struggles of the illegal migrant, and in offering constructive solutions to the problem. In fact, it misses the point almost entirely. While Lioret correctly identifies France’s refugee crisis as a real and important quandary, he seems to see only the tip of the iceberg. In an attempt to instill a passionate response in Western viewers, Lioret utilizes the sad story of one young migrant, and, rather ironically, enacts part of the problem which he himself seeks to address. By characterizing the migrant in an unflattering and racially demeaning manner, Lioret strengthens the established hierarchy and perception of the “other” as victim of the helpless backwardness of his/her native culture, and the French as the savior and father of the formerly colonized. Offering mere band-aid solutions to the refugee crisis, Lioret’s fall into false consciousness is extraordinarily problematic. The popularity of cinema in modern culture has powerful ramifications on the political and social subconscious of average movie goers, and Welcome may only serve to further complicate an already delicate situation. To the viewer with an especially trained eye, the recognition of Lioret’s false consciousness in Welcome serves as a valuable reminder that overcoming social ideology is extremely difficult, and the inability to do so ever clouds racial issues such as the French refugee crisis.

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