Often, on our shores, the topic of illegal immigration is isolated to the United States/Mexico border debate, but a growing number of films from overseas are landing here in the U.S. wrestling with the topic in unique and distinctive ways. The Belgian-made film, “Illégal”, focuses on two Belarusians, a single mother and her 13-year old son, who are illegally living in Belgium to escape conditions apparently so bad that the mother utters in a moment of despair, “…we can never go back to that place.”
Olivier Masset-Depasse’s second film is an intriguing effort which skirts over some rather important details but remains compelling nonetheless. The mother, Tania (Anne Coesens), is a former teacher and tries to exist under the radar with her son, Ivan (Alexandre Gontcharov). In the film’s opening prologue, we learn that Tania has fled Belarus but is trying to apply for residency in Belgium via the proper channels. Unfortunately, with her application rejected, Tania makes the decision that she and Ivan, then 6 years old, will stay and take the risks associated with living illegally in a country. The opportunities are too much to pass up for Tania in Belgium and after imbibing some liquid courage, Tania burns off her fingerprints and attempts to make her whereabouts untraceable.
With her son now 13, we learn that Tania has a best friend, Zina (Olga Zhadanova), and a queasy friendship with the shady Novak (Tomasz Bialkowski), who routinely forges immigration papers for Tania in case she is asked to undergo a random police check. Out one day with Ivan, Tania is followed and stopped by authorities and when her papers are questioned, fear sets in and Tania’s actions find her arrested and sentenced to a facility holding women and children facing deportation.
It is clear to me that I may not have all of the information needed to understand all of the political statements Olivier Masset-Depasse is making with this film. However, his screenplay seems written in a vacuum. We never learn why Tania has fled Belarus or why any of the other prisoners are in the situation they are in. We are asked to believe and understand that going home is unfathomable. Tania does befriend and come to know a fellow prisoner, Aissa (Esse Lawson), who is something of a worldwide celebrity because of her plight. But so little time is given to the inmates surrounding Tania, that when events transpire with them, we are not as engaged in what occurs as we should be.
Anne Coesens gives an impassioned performance as Tania and her work here carries the film substantially. Ultimately, “Illégal” aims for importance and significance but while falling somewhat short of its likely intent, I recognize the effort though. Olivier Masset-Depasse is a Belgian filmmaker defending the immigrant and paints an unflattering and maybe even damning portrait of Belgian immigration law and policy.
The problem is that no matter how swept up in Tania’s story you may become, there is nothing here but a prefunctory context to analyze everything with. Had Masset-Depasse expanded his scope, “Illégal” could have been truly profound and galvanizing.