From Casablanca to Calais: refugees on film

On 10 June last year I chaired a panel discussion at BFI Southbank with directors Stephen Frears, Mat Whitecross and Kenny Glenaan and cultural commentator Professor Terence Wright. We were looking back on the portrayal of refugees in film as part of a unique event organised by Refugee Action and Brightwide for Refugee Week. As our event at the BFI Southbank drew near, I reflected on some of the films that were to be  debated in NFT1. Thanks to Esme Peach and Refugee Action for giving me permission to reprint it here. You can read more about the charity’s work particularly the challenges they face since losing 60% of their funding for some services here:

As I write this, there’s been much discussion on the news about the British government’s plans to start sending back and “resettle” 16 and 17-year-old Afghan asylum seekers. Everyone has an opinion about them; not least how far they’re genuine refugees rather than economic migrants pushed by their families to make their fortunes in the West.

From Casablanca to Calais?


By coincidence the day before I’d been watching In This World – Michael Winterbottom’s controversial documentary-style drama about young Afghans smuggling themselves at huge expense overland to Britain for a better life. Watching it I felt extremely uncomfortable.

Not just because of the trauma of their dangerous travels – notably in the back of a sealed truck; living off their wits on the streets of Italy – but because of the use of non-actors to undertake the perilous trip. One of course, really did claim asylum on arrival.

Philip Lioret’s Welcome also mixes professionals with non-actors, but this acclaimed French drama, focussed on the illegal migrants trying to get from Calais to the UK, is an unashamed romantic story; like Casablanca. Much of it is set like Let The Right One In, in and around a municipal swimming pool, and has a similar dreamlike tone.

Indeed my dreams have been haunted by the image of a swimmer attempting to cross the tanker-crowded shipping lanes of the stormy Channel. “Welcome” is also one of the few films to focus also, on the plight of women – London can mean a forced marriage, as much as it means freedom.

What emerged for me?

Filmmakers, it seems have two ways of dealing with the theme of refugees.  They can reveal the director as journalistic investigator, or aesthetic experimenter. What is it like to be smuggled from Afghanistan to London? How do you get there? (In This World). An intriguing experiment. Leonard Maltin described the effect of watching it as  “hypnotic”.

Moving to Mars_press still 1

Mat Whitecross’ charming Moving To Mars is openly a documentary.  He recently said in an interview that in a way it didn’t matter that the families he followed from their Thai refugee camps to resettlement in Sheffield were Burmese Karen. It was about capturing the refugee experience of translocation.

But actually, what engaged, charmed and ultimately moved was the way he gave viewers the intimacy of getting to know these individual families’ way of life, their tastes (one dad loves “The Carpenters”), their values and their hopes collide with a new reality.

The bright tropical warmth and appetite for learning among their fellow Karen in the refugee camp schools and nurseries, fade to the cold grey of a South Yorkshire winter and a 49-year-old highly qualified engineer forced to sit a BTEC course alongside some spotty teenagers.

The scene where an illiterate rice farmer tells his JobCentre plus interrogator that he’s willing to do anything, but would like to learn English too, is one of the most heartwarming. She grasps both his hands on the brink of tears, wishing him all the best.

Looking back on Free Cinema


Refuge England – a product of the late 50s’ “Free Cinema” movement, championed at the National Film Theatre by Lindsay Anderson – was a revelation for how it turned what could have been a cold experiment (a European refugee of unknown origin arrives at London’s Waterloo station with only a name and an address to construct a new life) into a reverse examination of a strange and mysterious city; all those bowler hats, all those survivors of the Blitz looking haggard beyond their age.

For a modern viewer, too there’s a shocking realisation of what London eating must have been like without curry, kimchee and ramen. It was rather good to keep going with the FreeCinema DVD to watch We Are the Lambeth Boys too – a reminder of how native working class Londoners themselves could feel stateless within their own city. Though wearing fabulously smart suits and dresses.

The second kind of option on refugees on film?

Some directors have opted to make unashamedly popular mass market movies. I would suggest that’s perhaps the most impressive. Refugees are just people, aren’t they? Not “issues”.

Casablanca may have been made entirely by European refugees at the height of the Second World War, but damn it, Ingrid Bergman looks fabulous when she walks into Rick’s café Americain in her white suit with matching clutchbag. And used as we are to blanking out news reports on people trafficking, there is a new shock to watching the opening sequence of the film in which desperate white people throw their life savings at Middle Eastern and African smugglers to attempt a Mediterranean crossing with forged passports.

I have to confess my heart sank at the thought of sitting down to watch a film about post-Sangatte migrants, but Welcome pulls off the double coup of a truly French love story – parental as well as romantic – with real political impact (it was shown in the French parliament for the storm it brewed up about the Republic’s callous and to some extent hypocritical handling of the humanitarian crisis on its shores.) It’s one of the most wonderful films I’ve seen this year.


Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things uses the best professional actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tatou), the best of thriller plotting (a human heart found blocking a hotel room toilet), and a brilliant setting, imaginatively photographed (London by night) to construct a gripping and moving drama that tells an emotional truth about gritty issues (human and organ trafficking). A master director, focussed on telling a great story.

Exile on celluloid

As political arguments rage across the river in Westminster, we will darken the lights, open our minds and hopefully shed a little light on some great films.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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