Casablanca: When refugees were glamorous


This was written for the Spectator Coffee House blog, ahead of the Casablanca night at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on June 22nd, to mark Refugee Week. 

“I don’t buy and sell human beings,” says Rick to the rival club owner hoping to get the pianist Sam. “Too bad,” comes the reply,”that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.
Desperate men and women pay fortunes to people smugglers or have sex with them. Many are abandoned penniless, trapped and unable to return home, fearful of arrest. Police and cross border agencies monitor known people trafficking routes across the Mediterranean
from North Africa. Passports are stolen and doctored, the price for the right papers is extortionate. There is no mercy if you cannot pay the price. Every so often the local police, under pressure from the powerful German authorities, smash a ring of traffickers. The price goes up that much more for the next batch of migrants trying to get out or get in.

Anyone who comes to the free screenings at the V&A museum in London tonight will find this opening documentary-style sequence of Casablanca unsettling viewing. The images that come to mind are of endlessly repeated news footage — the giant transit camp at Sangatte near Calais in the early 2000s; or even the “embarrassment” of half
dead African migrants washing up on the tourist beaches of the Canary Islands, more recently, or navigating the Mediterranean while the NATO bombardment of Libya was underway last year.

The difference? The reversal of black and white. The desperate hordes are white. Their traffickers and potential liberators mostly middle Eastern or black.

The Nazi persecution of Jews, Gypsies and left wing political activists has become a special exception in our modern view of refugees. The term has become debased into a synonym for economic or illegal migrant mostly black or dark skinned, probably ill educated. The
term “asylum-seeker” has become a semantic pole that has distanced us from the idea of sanctuary and the legitimacy of granting refuge. They’re not people “like us”.

In our modern “heritage” view of the Second World War, we have perhaps chosen also to forget how rife anti-semitism was in Europe during the war. The strong tendency to look away. Note the fate of the SS St Louis, turned back from every American port in 1939. Many of its 937 Jewish refugees were to die when the Nazis invaded Western Europe not long after.

So  how should we view Casablanca 70 years on? Released in 1942, there is desperation not only in the characters who come to Rick’s Café Americain, but in the atmosphere of the film. Its release was pushed forward to capitalise on the Allied landings in North Africa and the Battle for Casablanca. According to Frank Miller author of a book on the making of the film, it wasn’t well-received in France and not shown in Germany for years, and initially only in a heavily censored version that, bizarrely, eliminated all references to the Nazis.

But its power is from the romance of the human story. There are entire film studies courses taught round the claim that Casablanca contains every essential plot in world literature. (I’m with the Robert Blake thesis that there are 9 plots ranging from Achilles, Circe to Romeo and Juliet and The Wandering Jew). But isn’t so much of its power also
explained by the fact that Ingrid Bergman didn’t know which man she would leave with till very close to the end of shooting?

The Hollywood writers, producers and technicians who made the film, many of them from Jewish and refugee backgrounds knew the power of glamour. The costumes, the music, the atmosphere, that first shot of Ingrid Bergman, glowing in white, sell Casablanca as a place of adventure and excitement. They engage our emotions and our fantasy in a way that a well intentioned news documentary cannot. They cast glamorous stars we might want to be, as refugees. Stephen Frears’ casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou and Sophie Okonedo in Dirty Pretty Things recognises the power of such casting.

If we find positive stories about refugees today, we have to look hard, often in local news. The have-a-go-hero who stood up for a pensioner being mugged; the great exam results come August. I still remember a TV interview with an Iraqi girl, who’d arrived in England with her mother, speaking no English at 10, leaving an inner city comprehensive after A-levels with a place to study medicine at Cambridge. Each of these stories is a Casablanca of inspiration, talent, love and determination.

In bringing live musicians, of refugee backgrounds, to the V&A tonight, there is a chance that we can re-think our labels. Leave your stereotypes with the hatcheck girl, take a table, and soak up the atmosphere in London’s monument to world culture. Casablanca is not
just a great film. It’s a state of mind.

Further reading

The 7 or is it 9 plots of Casablanca

Interview with Casablanca screenwriters

The refugee connection to the soundtrack of Casablanca

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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